Sunday, February 28, 2021

Jimmy Justice,The Kestrels and The Eagles - Pye Golden Guinea Smash Hits

Jimmy Justice 

James Little, 15 December 1939, Carlshalton, Surrey, England. Justice signed to Pye Records in 1960, owing partly to fellow stable-mate singer, Emile Ford, who had spotted Jimmy singing in a coffee bar. When Justice’s first two releases failed in the UK, he relocated to Sweden where his cover of the Jarmels’ ‘Little Lonely One’ charted. In 1962 with the help of producer Tony Hatch, he strung together three UK Top 20 hits: the remarkably fresh cover version of the Drifters US hit ‘When My Little Girl Is Smiling’, ‘Ain’t That Funny’ - an original song penned by Johnny Worth - and ‘Spanish Harlem’. Justice spent 1962 commuting between England and Sweden (where he had many previous bookings to honour) but managed, together with his group the Excheckers, to join a Larry Parnes UK tour headed by Billy Fury and Joe Brown. This white singer who possessed a mature, soulful voice, was sometimes called ‘Britain’s Ben E. King’, and caused some controversy when he covered King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’ with an uncannily similar vocal style. Justice also recorded for Decca Records in 1969, RCA Records in 1968 and B&C in 1972.

The Eagles

British quartet from Bristol (1958-1964). Terry Clarke (lead guitar, vocals), Rod Meacham (drums), Michael Brice (bass), Johnny Payne (rhythm guitar)
Mostly famous for their versions of TV theme tunes.

The Eagles -- not to be confused with the 1970s California band of that name -- started out in Bristol, England at the end of the '50s. Terry Clarke (lead guitar), Johnny Payne (rhythm guitar), Michael Brice (bass), and Rod Meacham (drums) were all students at Connaught Road School, and they took the group name from the Eagle House Youth Club, to which they all belonged. The quartet played local dances, parties, and bingo halls, often passing the hat to be paid. A pivotal moment came with their appearance at Royal Festival Hall in 1962, in the final round of the Rhythm Group of the Year competition. They were seen there by composer Ron Grainer, who liked what he heard and had a particular project in mind for them -- he had to write the score for a movie built around the Duke of Edinborough's anti-juvenile delinquency youth club project, entitled Some People. The movie was to be shot in Bristol, and already a local singer named Valerie Mountain had been selected for the soundtrack -- this band, from a youth club in Bristol, seemed perfect, both for the film and the score he envisioned.

No one was more astonished than the members themselves. And it only got better when Grainer got them a recording contract with Pye Records. An EP of the soundtrack to Some People reached number two and remained on those listings for 21 weeks. The band debut single, "Bristol Express" b/w "Johnny's Tune," was released in June of that year, and while it never charted, the reaction was promising. By the fall of that year, though they hadn't charted a single, the band suddenly found themselves the most visible instrumental group in England other than the Shadows. And prospects only got brighter in 1963, when they were on a package tour playing backup to Johnny Tillotson and Del Shannon, who was so impressed with them that he wanted the Eagles as his permanent backing band. Finally, in August of 1963, they got out their first LP, Smash Hits from the Eagles.

The group seemed headed for another good year in 1964, and then Ron Grainer, who had guided their careers and their music for two years, was literally struck blind. Although he survived and would continue to write excellent music, his career as their producer was ended. His loss proved crucial, and by the end of 1964, by which time Meacham had succumbed to an unrelated mental breakdown, the band had called it quits. The members went their separate ways, Payne and Brice returning to Bristol, while Terry Clarke continued to work in London, and later passed through the lineup of Pickettywitch before moving to America. The band's music was reissued on CD in the '90s, and since then has received attention from renewed interest in the movie Some People, which is now regarded as something of a '60s cultural artifact.

The Kestrels 

are scarcely remembered today, if at all, even in England, except as the group through which the songwriting team of Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway first met and started composing jointly. They were one of the busiest vocal groups in England during the late 1950s and early '60s, however, singing backup behind Joe Brown, Billy Fury, Eden Kane, and Benny Hill, among many others, and made dozens of television appearances between 1958 and 1964.

The quartet's origins go back to the mid-'50s, when they were in their early teens at school together. Tony Burrows, Roger Greenaway, and Roger Maggs' earliest influences were skiffle and rock & roll, and they began getting booked to play local dances. The trio expanded to a quartet with the addition to Jeff Williams, who extended their harmonies upward into the falsetto range. They quickly started to focus on singing and became established as a harmony vocal group rather than a skiffle outfit. Their main influences were American R&B harmony groups such as the Platters and the Penguins, whom they did their best to emulate vocally.

The group members went through the army at the same time, continuing to work together whenever possible, and it was during this period that they got their name. They'd initially started working together as the Beltones and the Hi-Fis, but their manager, taking his lead from the manufacturer of the pencil he had in his hand at the time, decreed that they should become the Kestrels. It also fit in with an American tradition of harmony vocal groups that were named after birds (the Crows, the Penguins etc.).

This wasn't just a conceit. Listening to their records 40 years on, it's possible to hear the quality and dedication of their music making. Comparing themselves to The Platters might seem overly ambitious, especially as they also later covered country numbers like "Wolverton Mountain" as well as they did, but there is respect there for the sound of groups like The Platters and The Penguins. They were definitely English, not American, but they had a fresher sound than virtually any rival singing group in England.

They were still in uniform in 1958, but managed a winning effort in a vocal competition in Bristol, which led to a series of television appearances and more competitions -- these televised -- which they also won. Those appearances, in turn, led to their first, short-lived recording contract, yielding a single for the tiny, independent Donegal label. "We Were Wrong" b/w "Down by the Riverside" never charted, despite a featured spot promoting it on The 6.5 Special, then the biggest youth music showcase on British television. More television followed, and then their big break came when they were offered a contract by Pye Records.

At that time, Pye was one of the big three record labels in England. A relative upstart founded in the early '50s by an electronic equipment manufacturer, in barely five years they'd carved out a serious competitive niche alongside giant recording conglomerates EMI and Decca. Quite apart from classical, where they were picking up numerous ex-Decca and EMI artists and making money licensing the recordings to labels like Vanguard Records in America, they were having international success with trad jazz and the music of Mr. Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. They'd also capitalized on Decca Records' mistake in letting Lonnie Donegan get away from them, signing him to a long-term contract that yielded more than a dozen hits over the next six years, and also put Pye on the ground floor of the skiffle boom, which was the first youth-driven music boom in the whole history of England.

The Kestrels' debut single for Pye, "In the Chapel in the Moonlight," originally released as the B-side of their cover of Jack Scott's "There Comes a Time," came close to charting and probably would have if they'd only been able to promote it -- the army came first, however, and it just missed getting them on the charts in late 1959.

The group bounced briefly over to Decca before returning to Pye Records, and a long-term contract to record for that label's Piccadilly imprint. Their subsequent releases failed to chart, but they remained busy on their own performances and also backing Pye's resident star, Lonnie Donegan, on some of his records and his live performances. The Kestrels finished their military service early in 1960, and were able to resume their music work full-time. They carried on, trying several different approaches to choosing their songs, but mostly covering American hits, which may have been part of their problem.

Though it was happening slowly, almost imperceptibly, the music business in England and the public's taste was changing -- the best and most popular artists weren't covering American songs as much anymore, and, increasingly, were introducing new material, some of it original. Additionally, the public in England was beginning to buy music that featured a much more aggressive instrumental attack, which was definitely not part of the quartet's focus.

They did go through a membership change in 1962 when Roger Maggs, who had gotten married and was looking for a more stable livelihood, left the group. He was replaced by Peter Gullane.

The group had little luck in selling their records, but not for lack of trying. Their version of the Rooftop Singers' American hit "Walk Right In" was lively enough, but was still displaced by the original. Their cover of the Lennon-McCartney song "There's a Place," which they reportedly cut at the suggestion of the two songwriters, was a beautifully sung reconsideration of the song, a little more dramatic and less exciting than the original. It should have been a hit, and was even picked as a hit, but failed to sell when Parlophone issued a Beatles There's a Place EP that displaced the Kestrels' cover of the song.

Smash HitsTheir version of the Four Seasons' "Sherry" is even more impressive, slowing it down ever so slightly and emphasizing a slightly more elegant approach to the singing than the original. They learned to rock out a little more easily on numbers like that with the recording of their Smash Hits LP, featuring their covers of current rock & roll hits -- "Speedy Gonzales," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," and "Rhythm of the Rain" are delightful vocal workouts, each with a good beat, but they still have room for a gorgeous treatment of the ballad (associated most closely with Nat "King" Cole), "When I Fall in Love." And their cover of "Please Please Me" is worth the whole rest of the album.
Heard today, the Kestrels' music is difficult to categorize. Their late-'50s work is clearly influenced by R&B vocal groups like the Platters and the Penguins, though it is, equally clearly, done in a pop vein. Their early-'60s records, with some rhythm guitar and sightly heavier drumming, is closer to rock & roll. This flexibility may have doomed them anywhere but in the industry itself, where it would be a prized attribute of any session group.

By 1964, it was clear that any moment that the Kestrels might've seized as their own was past. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, and the other new wave of rock & roll artists were playing a heavier, more formidable brand of music than the Krestrels could ever emulate, even if they'd wanted to try. There were still live engagements and lots of session work, however, and when Pete Gullane left, he was replaced by Roger Cook.

The handwriting was probably on the wall, if one could have read it, with the booking of their final tour, where they were billed with Billy Fury, Brian Poole & the Tremeloes, and the Pretty Things -- one admirable but slightly dated star, one throwback group, and a blues-rock band that never made it despite an abundance of talent, and the Kestrels. The group split up in 1965 after a disastrous final performance where the quartet fell apart in hysterical laughter.

Madman Across the WaterRoger Cook and Roger Greenaway went on to form one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of the late '60s, initially providing material to the Fortunes, a harmony group remarkably similar to (but luckier than) the Kestrels, in the form of "You've Got Your Troubles," a number one British hit, and even tried their hand at recording as a duo, christened David & Jonathan, through which they enjoyed a short string of their own hit records. Tony Burrows sang lead with the Flower Pot Men and also became an extremely busy session singer whose work included recordings by Elton John (including the Madman Across the Water album) and Matthew Fisher, among numerous others. In 1998, Sequel Records put together a 30-song collection of the Kestrels' music, paired off in a double-CD set with a 30-song CD of music by the Eagles.


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