Sunday, 31 July 2011

The making of a busker... extracts one, two and three...

(Alan Young and Don Partridge in 2008)

From 'Don Partridge And Company,' pages 11-12.

I became aware of buskers from an early age as I often saw the Happy Wanderers Jazz Band1 plying their trade when I was about seven and out with my parents in London when we lived in Earls Court. Also, my father and my uncles would dress up as the Hollis Brothers2, an old school music hall act, in home-made jellebahs and fezes and do the sand dance to 'The Old Bazaar in Cairo' which my uncle Nobby would play on piano or accordion at every wedding or party held by the large and widespread Partridge family, affairs which, as a small boy, I enjoyed to the full. About that time, my father, a guitarist who was playing in a dance band when he met my mother, gave me a ukulele banjo and a couple of old music books with songs like 'Old Folks at Home,' 'Streets of Laredo,' and the George Formby standards. I became quite proficient: at future parties and weddings I would be included in the performance. I have always thought that one of my better personal traits was my ability to digest something and hide it away for future use, so I was already forming ideas about busking, albeit whimsically, at that tender age. When I was considering possible ideas about employment after school, along with engine drivers, firemen and pilots, occasionally the idea of busking would cross my mind, not as a job alongside the other stereotypes but more as a way in which I thought that, if I ended up a tramp, it could be a way to feed myself.


1 The Happy Wanderers Jazz Band – A group of middle-aged and older musicians who played traditional jazz in the West End of London in the 50s and 60s.
2 The Hollis Brothers – Albie and Harry, street buskers who did the sand dance, aided and abetted by Charlie Hilliard on accordion, known as the Roadstars. Ronnie Ross also worked with them although he later went solo. Played the West End of London. Harry Hollis was allegedly in the Guinness Book of Records for being London's 'most arrested man.'

From page 35:


Terry and I were were doing very well [in Paris] on the queues, making a comfortable living. Occasionally we would hook up with another musician, whoever might be drifting through. Which is how I met Dick (Richard) Farina2, who was a brilliant harmonica player. He became famous later as a writer but we knew him as a musician. He was married to Carolyn Hester, the famous American folk singer but had met Mimi Baez3, Joan Baez's sister, who became his girlfriend. Mimi's father had come to Paris to work for UNESCO and brought his wife and younger daughter. I saw her a couple of times in the Bar Monaco: like her elder sister she had lovely long hair and was very beautiful. Later they were married after Carolyn Hester divorced him and they had a few records out before his tragic motor bike crash in 1966, a couple of days after his book, 'Been Down So Long It LooksLike Up To Me,' was published and subsequently became a counter-culture classic. Dick came and played the queues with Terry and myself a few times and we clicked pretty well. This was when I was becoming more competent, in every kind of way, learning new stuff all the time.


2 Richard Farina 1937- 1966. American singer/songwriter and author of cult classic 'Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.' Married celebrated folksinger Carolyn Hester and came to Europe on tour with her – where he met Mimi Baez...

3 Mimi Baez 1945-2001. American singer/songwriter and political activist, overshadowed by her more famous sister, Joan. She met Farina in Paris where she lived with her family at the time. They subsequently married after his divorce to Hester and made several albums together back in the US before his tragic death in a motorcycle accident.

From page 75:


By entering the busking universe I started to live in a world that was at right angles both to straight society and the coming of new colourful times – a part of them, to be sure, but allied to some older outlaw way of life... When I eventually worked with Jumping Jack I was to see this more clearly.

And I wandered from the old to the new and back – from West End to East End, North to South – although South of the river was a territory I only came to know better many years later. As pirate stations cranked up the volume of the soundtrack, London was dancing to new tunes. Some of which were supplied by the buskers – especially the new young breed of street musical anarchists, Don Partridge, Alan Young, Pat Keene. They stood above me in years and experience, but I could about hold my own musically. And I was willing to learn from them.



  1. Hiya, I'm looking into my grandfathers history and i came across your page, Just thought id let you know Harry Hollis was not allegedly in the guiness book of records he was in it for being the most arrested man i have seen it in there. Harry Hollis was my grandfather. Hope you find this helpful Tammy

  2. I knew the story but hadn't checked the Guinness Book - thanks for the confirmation. I don't remember Harry but knew Ronnie Ross and his wife Peg very well. When I started busking, Ron was mainly working on his own but now and then he did something with Charlie. I did an event with them when we were all booked to play outside the Palace theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to promote the first night of a new musical called 'Phil The Fluter.' We were all bunged good money and told not to bottle the crowd. Which of course we did. Ron and Charlie played at one end, myself and the Earl of Mustard (Norman) played at the other. The musical bombed very quickly - but we made a lot of money that night! I actually have a copy of Ronnie's autobiography on an old Mac disk which sometime I want to try and access as it will have lots of good stories in it.

  3. Hi, I'm also looking for information about my grandfather who played clarinet in 'The Happy Wanderers' jazz band much earlier than the 50s and 60s. My grandmother would not marry him unless he left the band so we are probably looking at the 1920s or so. I did find an LP of their playing from a later era which has a whole page of reminiscences on the back of the sleeve, but this was also after my grandfather's time with them. They also played at Ronnie Scott's nightclub and I've also seen a photograph of them playing on a departmental store roof (but there isn't a clarinettist!).

    After he left to get married his brothers continued in the band for a long time as my mother used to walk past them when she had grown up and worked at the Board of Trade in the early 1950s. The band also played in North America as the boys were all orphaned and taken to Canada to work in the fields during their teens. I know my grandfather also had a spell in the Canadian Army around that time and I'm not sure how it all fitted together in the timeline. I wish he were still here to fill in all the gaps but he died in 1963 in his fifties.

  4. Hi Ann - I'm sorry, I have little info about the Happy Wanderers. They did not mix with the West End buskers very much, as far as I know, probably because they played in different places - difficult to busk a cinema queue with a jazz band! I'll have a word with Pat Keene (collaborator and photographer on the book) and see if he knows anything. Pat is a few years older than I am and started in the West End circa 1962-3. I wasn't aware that they had been going so long - back to the 20's - which is interesting. They must have had people coming and going frequently down the years. I doubt any of the members from when I saw them round the West End and they played at the ALbert Hall buskers concert are still alive but who knows? Got the feeling that they weren't around much after say 1970 but by then I was spending more time abroad so wasn't playing in London so much. The gig at Ronnie's is also something I didn't know - not the sort of band that would usually play the mecca of modern jazz in those days! Ronnie's started in 1959 so it would have been after that date. The 'Melody Maker' archives might be a good place to look for that as it would have had a listing. The US/Canada connection is also news to me - fascinating stuff. If I come over any more info I'll put it up...