Meet the man who brought rock 'n' roll to Torbay
- Credit: Submitted
It was in 1957 that a former soldier in the Household Cavalry rode to the rescue of Torbay’s rock and rollers.
In an era when tea dances, palm court quartets and Marine Spa dances were as good as it got for live music in the Bay, Lionel Murrell Digby set out on a career that, for the next two decades, was to keep the area on the musical map as one of the country’s most important concert venues.
These were the early days of rock and roll and of American chart domination through stars like Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everley Brothers and Chuck Berry.
Their music gave a voice to the teenage generation providing an outlet for its frustrations and desires and across the UK groups were formed, drums and electric guitars shaking and rattling walls and floors in homes and garages across the land as they attempted to imitate their heroes.
The Bay boasted some excellent local rock groups such as the Barracudas, Mel Fear and The Phantom and the Mustangs, but what they lacked initially was a stage to showcase their talent - until Digby came along and gave them one.
His early concerts were staged in the Co-op Hall at the back of Union Street and featured the local rock and roll scene but as word spread his LMD Promotions took the show on the road around the Bay before eventually settling in a more permanent home - Torquay Town Hall.
As demand for Digby’s promotions grew so did the status of the acts he brought to the Bay.
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Johnny Kidd and the Pirates had played Co-op Hall in June 1960 and after becoming one of the few pre-Beatles rockers to achieve worldwide recognition with ‘Shakin’ All Over’, returned in November 1962 to play the town hall.
Another early Digby favourite was Screaming Lord Sutch. What he lacked in singing ability Sutch made up for with shock rock antics that pre-dated those of Arthur Brown and Alice Cooper and his stage props included a coffin from which he emerged to start his act.
Sutch was later to make his name as a serial Parliamentary candidate forming the Monster Raving Loony Party and setting up his headquarters in the Golden Lion in Ashburton.
Digby was most definitely in the right place at the right time for this was the Swinging Sixties, arguably the most important decade in the history of modern music, one which saw the emergence of British bands who not only took the UK by storm but also conquered the previously home-dominated American market.
Throughout the 1960s and much of the 1970s most of the biggest names in British music played Torquay Town Hall at some stage of their careers.
Most of them. But not quite all because there is one significant name from the list of stars and they were the biggest, most influential and most famous group of them all.
Lionel recalled the reason for this omission in an interview with actress Julie Walters when she stopped off to meet the Bay’s Mr Rock and Roll while filming a TV documentary.
In 1962, Digby was a shrewd 20-something wheeling dealing promoter who had no qualms about going toe-to-toe with Tin Pan Alley’s smoothest and smartest operators, and when he received a call from a certain Brian Epstein who wanted a Torquay date for a new group from Liverpool he wasn't standing for any inflated performance fees.
“How much?,” asked Lionel. “£150,” replied Epstein.”
“£100, take it or leave it,” was the response from the Torquay promoter. He left it.
The group were, of course, The Beatles and later that year, in October, they had their first hit when ‘Love Me Do’ reached 17 in the top 20.
This time it was Digby who made the call to Epstein and found that the price had gone up dramatically.
“I told him I'd take his band,” said Lionel. “And he said it would cost £1,000 a night.
"I said don't talk silly, I'm only paying £600 to The Who and The Kinks, you're not going to get a one-hit-wonder band getting £1,000 a night, end of story, and that was it."
A few months later, on Sunday, August 18, The Beatles did come to Torquay playing two concerts at the Princess Theatre.
I was at one of them and it remains memorable mainly for the fact that it was impossible to hear any of the numbers due to the continuous high-pitched screams of the female members of the audience!
That's one of the reasons I can't recall everything they played that evening - nor could I find any record of their programme - but when they played Southport a week later, the playlist was ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Thank You Girl’, ‘Chains’, ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘Baby It's You’, ‘From Me to You’, ‘Boys’, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. I’m pretty sure it was similar at the Princess, if not identical.
Supporting them in Torquay were another Liverpool group, The Foremost, for whom John Lennon wrote two singles - ‘Hello Little Girl’ and ‘I'm in Love’ - but their biggest hit came a year after the Torquay concert when ‘A Little Loving’ reached number six in the charts.
Also on the bill were one of the busiest support groups in the business, The Kestrels, who were Bristol-based and whose line-up included Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook who went on to compose a string of hits together.