“Those of us from Ilford know Savile as the man who invented the disco. During the mid-50s he was manager of the Ilford Palais, then a dancehall which went on to become one of the area’s premier shitholes though it also featured in the video for The Kinks’ Come Dancing.
At the time, such places had live bands for people to dance to, with a DJ playing records in between as the band had a break.
One night the band turned up and demanded a pay rise or they wouldn’t play. Savile sacked them on the spot. As the crowds turned up he played records, continuously, on an early form of a twin turntable so there were no gaps.
The public danced – to Bill Haley or Elvis or whoever. It was immensely popular and much cheaper than hiring a band. So Savile made it a regular feature. The idea took off and, hey presto, became the first disco. In the world.”
“Two hundred miles away in the Mecca head office in London, my qualifications, or rather peculiarities, had not gone entirely unnoticed. Their dance hall in Ilford was not too healthy and a new manager was needed. I was summoned at once to fill this powerful post. Here was success after only a short time as dogsbody assistant manager.
I had never even slept overnight in London before, so every experience in that great fishing port was new. Likewise, Ilford had never adopted a strange provincial stripling before, so a lively scene of regional adjustment was necessary” (As it Happens, Jimmy Savile, p.33, 1974)
During the early – mid 1950s big bands were very popular, playing live while people did the jitterbug and jived. Led by charismatic and influential band leaders such as Ken Mackintosh who devised ‘The Creep’ (No 10 January 1954), the focus of entertainment was, pre-Savile’s self-claimed disco era, very much on people dancing to live music, although the Teddy Boys were starting to get fighty.
As The Kinks would later sing,
Just like the palais on a Saturday.
And all her friends will come dancing
Where the big bands used to play” (1982)
Bert Ambrose, the British Musicians’ Union, aged 58
Since the early 1930s the British Musicians’ Union (established in 1893) had campaigned successfully to prevent work permits for US jazz artists – unless reciprocal visas were issued to British artists. The advent of recorded music had impacted on live performing artists and Dance Halls such as Mecca were having to negotiate rates of pay for the music to play on.
Bert Ambrose, by the time he first encountered Savile, was 58.
Ambrose had a history of ‘knowing his worth’ and could lay claim to having received an imploring telegram from the then Prince of Wales (Edward the Abdicator, later Duke of Windsor) begging his return to Mayfair’s Embassy club in 1922. While a favourite of royalty, Ambrose was virtually unknown to the general public due to the fact he’d not been allowed to broadcast via the BBC during the two stints he’d spent there. The year after the birth of Princess Elizabeth at nearby 21, Bruton Street in Mayfair, Ambrose and his band took up residency at the illustrious Mayfair Hotel on the corner of Stratton Street, W1 on the opposite side of Berkeley Square. It was at the Mayfair he was able to record with any frequency having previously only cut about 20 records before 1929 compared to band leaders like Hylton who had sold 3 million alone by that point. In March 1929 Ambrose signed a one year deal with Decca. Credited with having found Vera Lynn and continuing his success during the war founding the RAF’s Squadronnaires, Ambrose was to enjoy the war years.
“Many of the Union members who were enlisted joined service bands who became better than the civilian bands left due to having more time to rehearse – Melody Maker described the Squadronnaires as “the finest dance band in Britain.” (Baade, 89)”
However Ambrose’s star had been on the wane since the end of WWII; by the 1950s he and his band were reduced to touring smaller provincial clubs, however majestically named.
In 1954 Ambrose and his band became resident at the Ilford Palais and in accordance with his previous employment history and union membership, the calls for higher rates of pay started pretty soon after. According to Savile profits were down when he arrived as Dance Hall Manager, a good 30 years Bert’s junior, between 6 – 18 months after Ambrose and his band had first become resident.
Ilford Palais de Danse and Kathy Kirby
Demolished in 2008 to make way for housing tower development named Vision20, the Ilford Palais de Danse was located on the south side of the High Road, to the east of Riches Road. It had originally been built as a cinema, or ‘electric theatre’, opened as The Premier Electric Theatre in 1911Passing through the hands of several owners unsuccessfully, it closed as a cinema in 1925, having been purchased by Mecca Dancing Ltd. as their new Palais de Dance, grand opening on Boxing Day, 1925
In 1959, following Savile’s successful stint there, the original facade was removed and a new plain facade was built, and it became the Palais Dancehall. Bill Haley and His Comets appeared on stage, as did pop groups The Who, The Kinks and The Small Faces. Known as Tiffany’s in the 1970’s, it later was taken over by the Rank Organisation and became a nightclub named Fifth Avenue, and finally Jumpin’ Jacks.
During the early 1950s neither London’s east end, or west end, were yet in thrall to the Krays, who turning twenty were already visiting the Vienna Rooms, a second floor restaurant opposite Edgware Road’s police station (now destroyed and rebuilt as Paddington Green high-security police station for detaining and interrogating terrorist suspects) to mingle and learn from the gangsters of the day. The two bosses of the underworld in London were Jack Spot and Billy Hill.
By 1954 Jack “Spot” Camacho had married his wife Rita and with two daughters had settled into family life in Hyde Park Mansions, a grand red mansion block of apartments built in 1887 situated moments from the Vienna Rooms, just behind Edgware Road tube station. Six years previously he’d planned a large heist on BOAC (then the long-haul arm of British Airways) secure warehouse at Heathrow in July 1948. Foiled by The Flying Squad, Jack’s partner in crime Billy Hill was charged with the warehouse heist and fled to South Africa where also charged with a separate assault he was eventually extradited to Britain. Here, the enmity between Hill and Spot began to grow after Hill served time in jail for the failed warehouse heist.
On his release from spending two years inside, Hill showed Spot how to execute a heist with his legendary postal van robbery in 1952 netting him close to £7 million in today’s money. Hill had some accomplished cohorts by this stage such as Eddie Chapman, who’d been jailed on Jersey in 1940 by the Nazis, known as a brilliant double agent and in 1954 he stole a further £40k in bullion. Quickly gaining prominence as a Criminal Mastermind in 1955 Hill wrote his memoirs, and retired to Tangiers, Morocco to run a smuggling operation. His wife Gypsy ran the large nightclub Hill had bought and named ‘Churchills’.
The Krays were called up for national service in summer 1952, just as Hill had been released. Their brother Charlie had entered the Navy in 1950 rising to become the senior service’s light-heavyweight boxer. Not so for the twins who exited after two years in the Fusiliers spent creating merry hell, including absconding frequently spending long periods on the run, mostly in pubs, and being locked briefly in the Tower of London finally resulting in being discharged with dishonour from the Army, after or during which they acquired the Regal Billiards Hall in Eric Street, off the Mile End Road.
Savile writes of his time at the Ilford Palais thus:
“In the south, reputation also plays a big part. One of our local lads was described to me in terms that would have got him a place in any Mafia family. In the two years I enjoyed the area’s hospitality he never struck a blow or pulled a job but still enjoyed his Joe Bananas reputation to the day I left.” (As it Happens, p.34)
Jimmy Savile – Scrap metal dealer, Tour of Britain Commentator, Assistant manager Leeds Mecca Locarno, aged 26
On 18th April 1953, Vincent had died of lung cancer leaving James Wilson Savile, then aged twenty-six, his seventh and youngest child £397 10s on 19th June (in today’s money about £9,600 or almost two year’s wages for a man earning five bob a week, not too mean a sum for a man who Savile claimed never earned more than a fiver a week). In 1954 Savile was beginning to emerge from the shadow of his father who had moved on from being a Bookie’s Clerk or Insurance Salesman to being titled Director at the nearby Mecca Locarno Dance Hall before he died, the same Dance Hall where Savile had worked as a relief drummer during the war, winning a Trophy aged 15, and would return to work as an Assistant Manager there.
“So, where was I to find my necessary grinding and shaping? As usual I landed right side up and took an offered job as an assistant manager at £8 10s, a week, in the very dance hall I had worked in during the war, whilst at school. How super it was to be back and how right it felt. The daily routine nearly broke my spirit. Gone was the wind whispering through the grass. No more the satisfaction of seeing a whole field of wheat well stooked. Instead it was drunken bums arguing to come in, lost coats in the cloakroom, and the ever-present possibility of getting your head kicked in.” (‘As it Happens’ , Jimmy Savile, p.32) (£8 10s = approx £200 per week in today’s money)
Considering an assistant manager was able to earn over £5 per week by 1953/1954 it’s a mystery as to why Vincent Savile, his father, as a Director of Mecca was paid less than £5 a week and never able to earn more.
“How she brought up seven kids and a husband on two or three pounds a week housekeeping was incredible. My dad never earned a fiver a week in his life, yet he was never out of work as a bookmaker’s clerk. So seven of us kids always had clothes, food and holidays. Well you tell me how she did it, cos I don’t know.”
“His dad was a quiet, strait-laced insurance agent, who was good with money, and his beloved mum worked as a bookmaker’s clerk as well as a care worker with the nuns at the Little Sisters home. She was also a tireless and popular fundraiser. It was common knowledge that Mrs Savile ‘wore the trousers’. (‘How’s about that then?’The Authorised Biography of Jimmy Savile, Alison Bellamy, 2012, E-Book Loc 314 of 4261)
After a year or so sleeping in a barge, working at the Mecca Locarno, Savile’s metamorphosis from dapper, young, man about town (replete with bow-tie slick suits and slick hair) to Commander of Crowds and Supreme ‘Attaboy!’ Union-Breaker was about to take a decisive turn in Ilford, Essex.
“Even back then, Jimmy Savile was bending the rules. ‘[He] was the young manager,’ said Simpson. ‘He wore clothes that were completely diffrent to the usual suit, white shirt and tie. He made it more exciting. During the interval when the band had its rest periods he introduced dancing to records and that was a real magnet for jitterbug fans.’
Savile told me he badgered the manager into letting him try out his record sessions idea. Although not hugely successful, they did manage to stimulate intrest and business at a struggling provincial dancehall. Neither of which went unnoticed. Two hundred miles away, Mecca Ltd joint chairman Carl Heimann was made aware of the livewire young assistant manager working at one of his joints in the north.” [In Plain Sight, Dan Davies, E-Book Loc 2051]
The Leeds Mecca had been opened on 3 November 1938 in the Victorian Quarter, a luxurious shopping arcade. Mecca Dance Halls had shown themselves to be impervious to any attempts to diminish their profits even during the Blitz, refusing to shut down during the war like other Dance Halls claiming their venues were “the safest form of amusement” during the bombing as they were single-level and easy to evacuate.The show must go on but with Ambrose prone to refusing to play and Mecca refusing to pay Savile was sent to Ilford.
“At a historic meeting between myself and the top Mecca directors it was decided that, on payment of the vast sum of one shilling admission, the guys and gals of the Ilford water-shed could have a great night out with, at long last, me and my machine. It wasn’t supposed to be quite like that because it was unthinkable that a Mecca manager should don clothes other than evening dress let alone mount the stage for anything longer than one announcement.” [As it Happens , Jimmy Savile [p.check reference, 1974]
Thirty years on, Dan Davies in 2014 provides more detail about the date of Savile’s move down South as well as the early growth of the Mecca Dance corporate hierarchy that Vince Savile, if employed as Director before his death, would have existed within:
“As a result, in the summer of 1955, Jimmy Savile was offered a promotion – and a major change of scene. Mecca Ltd asked him to take over the Ilford Palais-de-Danse, a struggling concern at the furthest reaches of London’s East End.
His tenure as a rookie manager got off to a slow start. Business was sluggish and Savile said that he was called into the company’s Dean Street offices for a meeting with Heimann, to do, as he described it ‘some explaining’.
Heimann was a Dane who had moved to England at the age of 16, beginning his career as a waiter before becoming a catering manager with Ye Mecca Cafes. His chief skill had been in recognising the potential for public dancing during the 1920s and then persuading the company to invest in a string of ballrooms. By 1934, Heimann was general manager of Mecca Dancing, an offshoot from the cafe company. A year later, he joined forced with Alan Fairley, a Scot with interests in the leisure industry north of the border, to form the Mecca Agency, which by the end of the decade virtually controlled all aspects of the company’s dancehall business. In 1946 Heimann and Fairley became joint chairmen of the new Mecca Ltd, and under their stewardship, Mecca’s dancehalls became not only a place to foxtrot, waltz and tango, but social glue for communities across Britain.” [In Plain Sight, Dan Davies, 2014, Loc 2060]
So in the summer of 1955
“In his own words, Jimmy Savile was about to become ‘the man’. After the years of lugging his rudimentary contraptions around small venues in Yorkshire, he now had a ballroom and, most importantly the blessing of a dancehall guru…Posters were put up advertising an ‘Off the Record’ disc dance night for the following week with revellers invited to bring their own 78s for the simple reason the dancehall manager didn’t have any of his own. Savile also decided to deviate from Heimann’s plan in one significant detail: admission would be free.
“The week before we’d had 24 people in, long leg dancing,’ he claimed. ‘But at about ten to eight we had 600 people turn up. It was like locusts. The bloody place was heaving. I was ankle deep in records on the stage. Didn’t know what the bloody hell they were. If anything worked I played it three times. From that day on I was the guvnor.” (as above)
First opening on a Tuesday was free, thereafter in today’s money 1 shilling or approx £1.14 was the entry fee. Savile already knew the value of having plenty of muscle to hand, and a 16 year old boxer Billy Walker was one of his doormen at the Palais. Billy was no ordinary bouncer. As the younger brother of George Walker, an ex-professional boxer who had become a minder to Billy Hill, he had good connections for ‘protection’. From 24 attendees the previous week Savile managed to get 500 dancing customers in, rising to 2,000 after 4 weeks.
Savile on keeping order in the Dance Halls (GQ Interview, 8 November 2012) “I made lads wear smart clothes. Because then they wouldn’t want to roll about on the floor fighting. No records over 38 bars a minute. Because what you didn’t want was exhibitionist dancers, gyrating about and causing a crowd. Everything had to be uniform. No big long sideburns and things like that because they’d want to prove their manliness by cracking somebody.”
George Walker, once ranked No.7 in the world as a light heavyweight boxer, had become minder to Billy Hill after he lost a fight to Denis Powell, and later re-emerged as a businessman who during his career built Brent Cross shopping centre, owned The Trocadero at Piccadilly, and William Hill, sometimes locking horns with Tiny Rowland of Lonrho. George’s daughter Sarah later married into Lord Mountbatten’s family, wedding the Marquess of Milford Haven in 1989.
“The triumph of this first record session in Ilford put Jimmy Savile on the map with Mecca Ltd. But being a fast-talking Yorkshireman with ‘more front than Blackpoll,’ as he put it in an alien city like London. Partly for self-preservation and partly for what it would do for his image, he took to walking around his dancehall flanked by a team of large and mean-looking bouncers.
It earned him a reputation as someone not to be messed with, even if he rarely if ever got his hands dirty.”
“Another plausible explanation for wanting protection is the attention he was by now attracting among the local teenagers who flocked to his Monday record nights, and the consternation this must have caused among some of their parents. As Kathy Kirby, who would go on to become one of Britain’s most successful singers in the Sixties revealed, even back then, Jimmy Savile liked to get what he wanted.” [Dan Davies, Loc 2096]
But before the climb to power for all…and a burgeoning sense of what the ‘lively scene of regional adjustment’ might have looked like when Savile arrived in Essex,
Enter Kathy Kirby, aged 16
Born Kathleen O’Rourke on 20 October 1938, Savile first spotted her as a 16 year old local convent school graduate dancing in the crowds and reportedly preyed upon her and her under-age sister Patricia from the off. Eileen, her mother, had brought up the three children alone, Kathy being the eldest, when their father had left home when the children were very young. Kirby is reported to have shown a taste for show business from an early age, winning a toddlers’ talent contest at three years old and while at school her ambitions for an operatic career were supported by her mother paying for private singing lessons. Kathy had later acquired a stepfather who worked at The Mayfair Hotel and knew Ambrose from his days there, still a haunt even after he gave up his flat there in 1940. While the accepted story is given here the fact that Kathy’s stepdad already knew Ambrose from The Mayfair may mean that the “impromptu” audition was more engineered than coincidence. As Savile liked to say about such “coincidences” – and the name of his autobiography = ‘As it Happens’ – the perfect gloss or miraculous segue Savile littered his jerky verbiage with.
“”In his book, No Secret Anymore: The Real Kathy Kirby, showbusiness historian Mark Willerton, one of the singer’s closest friends, tells how Savile, then 29, targeted her behind the locked door of a dressing-room at Ilford Palais…Kathy told me that Savile had been chasing her for some time, and he had also been chasing her younger sister Pat. But Kathy had, by then, met bandleader Bert Ambrose, with whom she wanted to lose her virginity. Ambrose had told her to go away and get some experience, and so the next time Savile tried, when he visited her in her dressing room at the Palais, she gave in. Or rather, she said that Savile hemmed her in and then it happened.” (‘Kathy Kirby seduced by evil predator Jimmy Savile’, Sunday Express, 24 March 2013)
Kathy had not had eyes for Savile, making Ambrose’s strange request appear to be some kind of acquiescence to a droit de signeur Savile felt able to exercise as ‘The Man’, an epithet Cyril Smith would use in his election campaigns. Even though Savile was only ten years her senior as opposed to Ambrose’s forty-two, it was Ambrose’s prowess as a bandleader she admired and she wanted to sing for and with him – Savile at that stage, as a mere disc-spinner, couldn’t claim to have the Midas touch to turn anyone he chose into a star, although as the Payola scandal of 1972 would suggest, he would discover those levers. By the summer of 1954 Kathy had left the strictures of Ursuline convent school behind with 3 ‘o’levels.Celebrating, she died her natural red hair blonde, donned her dancing shoes and black evening gloves and became a regular attendee at the Ilford Palais.
“But in 1954, when she was 16, she saw that the famous bandleader Bert Ambrose was due to appear with his orchestra at her local dance hall, the Ilford Palais de Danse. She decided to go along, and during the show – in an episode that went down in showbusiness legend – she walked up to the maestro and asked if she could sing with his band. Ambrose agreed.
Her renditions of two standards – Love Me Or Leave Me and All Of Me – were greeted with wild applause. Ambrose, recognising a remarkable voice and talent, immediately signed her up. “I have never known anyone with everything Kathy has to offer – voice, tone, range, feeling, personality and looks. In fact this girl has it all, and nothing can stop her becoming one of the greatest stars of our time,” he announced. She remained with his band for three years.”
Dan Davies notes:
“Kirby was just 16 when she began attending the Palais with her younger sister, Patricia. She said that Jimmy Savile, who was 28 at the time, pursued them both from the beginning, and that they both turned him down.
In the summer of 1956, Kathy was still a virgin when she got up on stage at the Palais to perform a number with the famous bandleader Bert Ambrose. Ambrose was sufficiently impressed to invite her on tour with him. Kirby fell hard for the renowned taskmaster and ladies’ man, who was forty years her senior, but Ambrose rejected her advances, telling her she needed to ‘get some experience.’
On returning to the Ilford Palais for a singing engagement, Kathy Kirby decided to do just that. So, when Jimmy Savile came into her dressing room and began making his customary overtures, she locked the door behind him. According to her biographer, she said ‘Savile hemmed her in and then it happened.’
Seven years later, in 1963, Jimmy Savile recalled Kathy Kirby in his weekly newspaper column on pop music. He wrote, ‘She has a knockout family which includes a darling sister.'” (Dan Davies, In Plain Sight Loc 2096 quoting Sunday people, 22 December 1963)
There’s still more to read in this area and update in this post – from Kathy Kirby’s subsequent career, insights from John Pearson’s Notorious (2010) to Billy Hill’s Boss of the Underworld (1955) to Man of a thousand Cuts (1958), Spot’s biography.
However, three questions occurred to me when I began to read about Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby, Ilford Palais and Savile in light of recent revelations:
1. Was Savile on duty in Leeds General Infirmary morgue the night of Friday 11 June Bert Ambrose died there in 1971 after collapsing in a Leeds TV studio while touring as Kirby’s controlling manager? [Savile told hospital staff he performed sex acts on corpses, The Guardian, 26the June 2014]
2. Were Savile or Thatcher aware that Kathy Kirby’s niece, Sarah, daughter of Kathy’s younger sister Pat ended up marrying Mark Thatcher as his second wife? It seems Kathy Kirby was estranged from her sister in later years and mostly kept to herself following Ambrose’s death and a second marriage to a policeman turned reporter
3. In view of Edwina Currie’s support for Savile’s control of Broadmoor in order to break union action, was Savile’s reputation as a Union-Breaker already known to the Conservative party and utilised by them? Is this what Thatcher and Savile would reminisce over at Chequers during New Year celebrations? It casts Currie’s ‘Attaboy!’ whoop of encouragement noted in her diary at the time in a wider context.