Sunday 18 November 2012

Don Jimmy Gambino OBE

When Dave Lee Travis was released on bail last week he was keen to distance himself from Jimmy Savile in the public’s mind. Fair enough — to be accused of dolly-bird-groping rather than kiddy-diddling is probably a worthwhile distinction to make. But Savile and Travis go back a long way. The future Hairy Monster’s first job was at Manchester’s Mecca-owned Plaza Ballroom. He was only seventeen when the manager, Jimmy Savile, hired him as a trainee DJ. (His age wasn’t a problem because the Plaza didn’t have a licence to serve alcohol.)

LeedsMeccauseThe Plaza was just one of many dance halls and clubs that Savile oversaw, managed, disk-jockeyed at, wielded shadowy control over or had some kind of undeclared stake in, not only in Manchester but also on the other side of the Pennines — in Bradford, in Wakefield, in Halifax, over on the coast in Scarborough and Whitby, and especially in Leeds. In his hometown the joints he presided over included the Cat's Whiskers and the Locarno Ballroom in the County Arcade, known by locals simply as “the Mecca” (later rebranded as the Spinning Disc). That’s where, in 1958, his predilection for underage girls first came to the attention of the police. The matter was swiftly resolved by peeling a few hundred quid off the big roll of twenties that he always carried, right up until he died.

Meanwhile, in Manchester on any given night in the late Fifties and early Sixties, if you couldn’t find Savile at the Plaza at lunchtime, he’d surely be at the Ritz later on. Or, if not, try the Three Coins in Fountain Street. He didn’t even rest on Sundays; that was when he span the platters for upwards of two thousand jivers and twisters at his Top Ten Club at Belle Vue.

The man was everywhere — at practically every major dance hall and nightclub in the North’s heaving conurbations, as much of a fixture as the rotating mirror ball.

How did he do it? Criminally, it seems.


He’d started out in the early 1950s, putting on his pioneering “record dances” for any dance hall that would have him. Discreet beginnings, but he was soon Mecca’s “dancing area manager” in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and before the decade’s end he was a director of the company. Most of the fifty-two venues he ran were in the North, but not all of them. We’ll come back to that.

Dance halls back then were — much as today’s clubs largely still are — strictly cash-based operations. The books were easy to cook, and if Eric “Mr. Miss World” Morley had given you the key to the night safe, it was even easier to skim the take. Is that how Jimmy Savile made so much money so quickly? We’ll probably never know, but he already had a Rolls Royce by the end of the Fifties and would soon be parading around the streets of Manchester in an E-Type Jaguar too. Jimmy-Oscar-Savile-1950s-use How does that work, when he was still only supposed to be a wacky-haired weirdo who acted the yodelling fool and put records on for folk to shimmy and shake to? He already had his show on Radio Luxembourg by then, true, but it’d be another five years before he was a household name with regular appearances on Juke Box Jury, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Top of the Pops.

A clue to just how much clout Savile wielded on the Northern nightlife scene fifty years ago is casually dropped by an anecdote in his official biography. One night he twigged that the doormen at one of his dance halls were operating some kind of scam. Savile went apeshit — not because his staff were contravening company policy, but because they’d had the gall not to include him in on it. He challenged them to explain themselves. He demanded his “cut” (yes, that’s how the official biographer phrases it), or they’d be out on their cauliflower ears. They acquiesced. Jim had fixed them.

Say hello to László

Hang on. Isn’t it supposed to be the heavies on the door who put the squeeze on the management? Not under Jimmy Savile’s regime. He had a whole crew of moonlighting miners, Eastern European bodybuilders — the one at the Mecca in Leeds was called László — and wrestlers at his permanent beck and call. Proper wrestlers they were, an' all, not mere dilettantes like Savile was during his stint as a novelty grappler. savillewrestlinguseOne of the three wrestling Crabtree brothers, Shirley, was among them — then still a sheer cliff of muscle billed as Blond Adonis or Mister Universe, many years before he turned to fat and reinvented himself as Big Daddy. Whenever trouble broke out on the dance floor, Crabtree would pick up the miscreants, bundle one under each arm like rolls of carpet and carry them outside. "Yow've been naughteh boys. Very, very naughteh boys.” He mostly worked for Savile on the door at the Cat’s Whiskers in Leeds, and in 1965, when he launched a club of his own (or at least ostensibly his own) in Halifax, Savile duly pitched up for the grand opening.

Meanwhile, back under the glare of the brighter lights of the Mancunian metropolis, things were obviously very different. Oh, wait. No, they weren’t. It turns out that most of the doormen at Savile’s Manchester dance halls were not hardnuts from Harpurhey, Longsight or Ancoats, as you might expect. They were Yorkshiremen. Jimmy Savile had taken his crew with him for company on his trans-Pennine commute. TeddyBoysMeccauseHe kitted out the ones on the door at the Plaza with hair clippers to strip off any teddy boys’ offensive sideburns before they’d be allowed in. “Eether them sardboards go, or yow dow.”

Let nobody ever accuse Jimmy Savile of not running a respectable establishment.

What exactly is going on here? Being driven around in a succession of fuck-you flash cars, the big cigars, never spending two nights running in the same house, flitting from nightspot to nightspot with a posse of big-muscled minders, packing a big roll of banknotes to pay off the police, demanding and receiving tithes from his underlings’ illicit earnings.... What does all that suggest to you: the quirks and foibles of a wannabe showbiz personality or the typical trappings of a mob boss?

Beneath the veneer of a Mecca middle manager, it looks as though Jimmy Savile was running a large-scale protection racket at dozens and dozens of Northern dance halls and nightclubs for the best part of two decades.

A lippy little tyke with his hair in a tartan bob (Black Watch, as he liked to point out) is all that most people chose to see. But up North he ruled the night. How’s about that, then?

Smokeward bound

And not just up North. By the early Sixties he’d also secured what is now called a “significant presence” down South. One of the Mecca clubs under Jimmy Savile’s very-much-hands-on purview — he nipped down the A1 to DJ there on Monday nights — was the Ilford Palais. And although he didn’t take his Yorkshire bruisers with him for that gig, you can’t say he skimped on their substitutes. One of his doormen at the Palais was the boxer Billy Walker, who no doubt would have become the British pro-heavyweight champion had it not been for the immovable hegemony of Henry Cooper. Walker’s brother and manager, George, had been Billy Hill’s minder. If you can’t quite place the name Billy Hill, he was the Kray twins’ patron.

On his weekly trips to London, Savile ran a schedule as tight as when he was on his home ground back up North. Before heading out for Ilford, and perhaps to Mecca's flagship Locarno Ballroom in Streatham as well,  he recorded his Teen and Twenties Disc Club for Radio Luxembourg. Then he'd pop his head in at the offices of Decca Records. It was not a courtesy call. By the time he hit the street again, he’d not only replenished his stock of music but also fattened his wad. It was a sweet payola deal. He promised to play the latest Decca releases at all his dances in return for a reasonable consideration. Decca, like most other labels at the time, was very much a mixed bag in terms of the quality of their records (they famously turned down the Beatles, although they struck gold with the Stones soon afterwards). And for every future hit they gave Savile first dabs with, they saddled him with several real stinkers. He caned them all the same, one after the other at the start of his sets. Regular punters soon learned that they wouldn’t miss much if they arrived fashionably late, just in time for the decent stuff that they'd paid to hear.

Not the face!

wrestlingbilluseEven the wrestling was bent. And not just because of the sham fights, with heels and blue-eyes working out all their moves in the dressing-room. The promoters were at it too. The top end of the business — because a sport is something it’s never been — was ruled by a cartel called First Promotions, which in turn was dominated by a tight clutch of Yorkshiremen. They bagged all the public’s favourite wrestlers and froze out any would-be rival promoters. Before long, the cartel was raking in £15,000 a week from TV rights alone. Of that, once “expenses” had been deducted, a couple of hundred quid tops would trickle down for the featured wrestlers to split between them. Jimmy Savile’s own bouts were promoted by Relwyskow & Green, two of First Promotions’ leading lights. By the mid-Seventies one of the Crabtree brothers, Max, was running the whole show.

We may never find out who Jimmy Savile really was: whether the entertainer, the philanthropist, the discotheque pioneer, the loner, the Bevin Boy, the loyal company man, the daft-coiffed eccentric, the secure-mental-hospital administrator, the all-in wrestler, the sociopath, the counsellor to royalty, the morgue attendant, the marathon runner or the serial sex fiend. At various times he was all those things. But it seems that from the early Fifties until at least the mid-Sixties he was, above all, a crook.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the most interesting, informative articles about Jimmy Savile that I have seen.

Anonymous said...

Can't remember the programme, but a few years ago, I distinctly recall Savile on a chat show, saying that he knew "people" who could sort out a difficult situation. He refused to elaborate, but the implication was that he could call on some "heavies" if some force was needed. Came across as very sinister & totally unlike the chirpy, showbiz face he normally portrayed. Anyone remember the clip or the programme???

Archie_V said...

I think it was the Louis Theroux documentary. His words were: "While I'm in Edinburgh, very dodgy things happen in London." It reminds me of the New York mobster John Gotti, when a neighbour accidentally ran over and killed his son. One weekend when Gotti was upstate, the neighbour disappeared. His body has never been found.

Anonymous said...

Very well written piece & very interesting

Anonymous said...

Not surprised in the least by the content of this article. Anyone running clubs in Manchester back in the day had to be harder, meaner and very talented, in the worse sense of the word. Great article.

Freddie Owen said...

Apart from skimming the door takings in a ballroom, where's the crime ? Hardly Al Capone.

David Hepworth said...

Even though I was growing up in Yorkshire at the time all this might have been going on, I can't say I knew owt about it.

We grammar school boys didn't visit these fleshpots much, though I do remember going to see Geno Washington in the ballroom in Leeds's County Arcade in 1967. That same year we went to the Mojo, which was Peter Stringfellow's far hipper club in Sheffield. If you want to know what the Meccas were like just go and watch any kitchen sink movie made in the mid to late 60s. I'm thinking of films like Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life (shot in Wakefield). It seems all these films climax in somebody getting their head kicked in by a bunch of miners eight pints of Tetley's beyond the legal limit. It seemed quite true to life.

I think I was dimly aware that Savile had worked for Mecca but by then he'd already become a national name thanks to Radio Luxembourg. He used to front the Teen 'n Twenty Disc Club. If memory serves this programme was sponsored by EMI and featured exclusively EMI records. All the shows on Luxy were paid for by record companies and oddly enough no worse for that. Oriole somehow had fifteen minutes a week, which they eked out by playing their only hit Orange Blossom Special by The Spotnicks. The great Tony Hall was the promotion man behind the London Atlantic label so naturally he was the ideal person to present the show that was sponsored by the same label.

The nearest I ever came to Savile was on one occasion in the 80s I wrote some piece in the paper where I pointed out that it was amazing how he'd been able to hold down a job as presenter of music TV shows for so long despite being unable to time a link (the "now then now thens" were ways of filling the gaps that he left) and apparently knowing nothing about pop music. Word came back to me that he was cross and there was some proposal to have us face off on some radio programme. Nothing came of it, which I suppose is a shame. Had it happened I'd have an anecdote. Or I would have been found in the River Calder.

One further thing. Shirley Crabtree was a distant relation of mine. Since the death of my Aunt Lily, who was keeper of the family history, I am no longer able to tell you how.

The past is a foreign country, as I have frequently observed.

Zoompad said...

Ludwig Lowenstein (Dr Frankenstein) was also a wrestler.

Zoompad said...

""Reason 3

"The Appellants have failed to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children accommodated in the Home pursuant to section 64(1)(a) of the Children Act 1989 by failing to respond to and understand the requirements for appropriate restraint training.
"(a) Despite a need identified in 1993 [and] recommendations from the Respondent in January and July 1995 the Appellants have failed to ensure that all staff receive training in restraint techniques by an accredited and recognised instructor in such techniques;

"(b) The Appellants have inappropriately chosen to rely on the experience of Dr Lowenstein including his experience as a wrestler."

Archie_V said...

Thanks a lot for that, David. I was hoping you'd bite.

The "ballroom in the county arcade" seems to have changed its name from the Mecca Locarno to the Spinning Disc, still run by Savile, around 1967, which you say was around the time you saw Geno Washington. I noticed old Geno cropping up in lots of places when researching this - did Savile "have a piece" of him too, perhaps?

Anonymous said...
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Archie_V said...
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Archie_V said...
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Archie_V said...

I hope the last commenter will understand that I had to delete their comment because it contained a person's name in connection with a criminal offence, possibly without their permission. Also, I don't want to focus on the issue of Savile's sexual abuse on this blog - that angle is being more than adequately covered by the mainstream media - but rather on his other activities and strange connections, particularly before he was a household name.

Anonymous said...

Here's Jerry Sadowitz in 2011, immediately after Savile's death:

Sen5c. said...

Very interesting and mostly new to me but I have one or two areas where I must dispute:

Savile undoubtedly had a Decca contract of some sort.His records 'Ahab The Arab' (1962) and 'Don't Do Anything I'd Like' (sound advice coming from Jimmy there!)(1963) were both Decca and I'm pretty certain so was Teen n Twenty isc Club.So not at all unusual that he would have been promoting Decca elsewhere when the opportunity arose

Your characterisation of Decca as especially naff seems ludicrous to me.True they missed The Beatles who charted in Oct 1962 but the Stones first charted in July 63 so at the most there might have been a 10 month period when Savile would have been unable/unwilling to play something teens wanted and I doubt even that was the case.

Oriole,by the way,managed far more than 1 hit despite their 15 minute restriction - The Spotniks themselves had 4 and Maureen Evans reached No 3 with 'Like I Do' leading in my case to an English lesson in part about incorrect use of 'like', in part about abuse of classical music.Those were the days!

One question: does anybody know what the precise tie-up between Savile and NME was?He certainly hosted at least one of their awards shows and the Luxembourg charts were an NME promotion.

Archie_V said...
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Archie_V said...

Thanks for that, Sen5c.

The sponsorship of Radio Luxembourg shows was quite open - the record companies behind each show were cited in their PR material. Although David Hepworth remembers Savile's T&TDC as having been EMI, a quick check seems to bear you out: others also remember it as having been Decca/London. (I also saw in passing that while Savile was on Luxembourg there was also a show called "Mecca Music Parade", but rather oddly Savile didn't present it; Colin Nicol did.)

The dig at Decca was possibly a bit unfair, yes - at least the bit about the Beatles. I didn't make up the part about the punters moaning about the Decca-plugging slot that he opened his sets with, though. Anyway, I've now tweaked that part in the light of your comment. (That's one of the things I love most about blogs: you can fix embarrassing howlers or just tweak nuances as readers' feedback comes in.)

Anonymous said...

I know a chap in his 70s who remembers back then and there. He tells the story about Savile and a butler or minder or manservant turning up for events in a Rolls Royce, all bling and glam. It was all show; turned out the two were mates and were so skint, they were sleeping in the Rolls Royce (which was hired). He used to have a bicycle in the boot and do races. Apparently, he let athletes -- especially cyclists -- into the dance halls for free.
Times were rougher and tougher back then. Racism was the norm, for example, and gangsters were a reality. Cash and wads of money were commonplace as there was no atm cards or credit cards. For today's perspective, a lot seems odd or immoral. But from a truthful historical perspective, he was far from a "criminal" per se, far from being involved in organised crime, he was mostly a man of his time.
As a final analysis, how could anyone with his dress sense, hairstyle and job of playing pop songs to young kids be taken seriously as a proper man back in those rough times? It is not difficult to imagine that he needed minders from time to time!

Unknown said...
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