Sheila Collier
Portrait of a musician
Reproduced by kind permission of Sheila Collier and Just Jazz Magazine


 

PART 1 - The 1940s and '60s

 'Why shouldn't Sheila sing the Blues?'

So ran the headline in Dave Duke's' World of Jazz' column, Manchester Evening News, 1958.

It was all so different back then. I was a very young and naive eighteen when I left the convent boarding school where I had been since the age of seven, and then ran away from my first term at the University of Exeter to be back home in Manchester. I got a place at the Manchester College of Art and discovered a whole new world. It was a million miles away from my strict Catholic upbringing - a new revolutionary society - a society where 'kids' ('teenagers' had barely been invented) could discover themselves as individuals and mix freely together. Kids from all classes and backgrounds, with a common urge to break away and find new art, new music, new technology - a whole new exciting world, and a new way of life.

John Mayall played piano and sang the blues in the Lecture Theatre at lunchtimes. Bill Haley and the Comets came to the Palace Theatre, and my friends and I formed a skiffle group - me with my three chords on guitar, my friend Trisha on a T-chest bass: a broomstick for the neck and a piece of string to pluck. The only member of the group who could really play was Tony Almond, an architectural student, on his banjo. We played and sang It Takes A Worried Man and Pick A Bale O' Cotton. I found I had a good, deep voice and a passion for the music.

Jazz clubs were springing up all over Manchester. The most famous was the Bodega, where London bands such as Mick Mulligan with George Melly came to play. Then there were the Clarendon at All Saints with resident band the Zenith Six, and the Black Lion on Chapel Street, Salford, with the Southside Stompers. Banjoist Tony Almond auditioned for a new band that was forming - the Climax Jazz Band - I went with him, sang the only jazz song I knew, Doctor Jazz, and was hired!

Now I was studying Dress Design at the Art College (nowadays it's called Fashion). I learned the music 'on my feet; as actors say - listening to records, seeing live bands. Ottilie Patterson and Chris Barber were a big influence, of course. The Black Lion, which was just off the main shopping street of Deansgate, was extremely popular. A room upstairs in the pub: it was packed every Saturday night, with people queuing right down the stairs to get in. One week I sat-in with the band, the Southside Stompers, and they invited me to be their regular singer. I well remember my first performance - they announced me, and while they played the introduction to Cake Walkin' Babies From Home, I rushed to the toilet across the landing, was sick, and reappeared to sing the song to great acclaim!

The Southside Stompers was a great band. At that time the line-up was Roy Bower (trumpet), Ron Pratt (clarinet), Eric Brierley (trombone), Norman Dakers (banjo), Derek Newton (bass), Don Bridgewood, and later Keith Morray (drums). We would meet at Roy's house to listen to records and try out songs. I discovered Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and would play the song selected over and over to learn the lyrics - quite a hard task for an English girl to pick out the words! After the club we would go for a curry at one of the many Indian restaurants in the city. Then I would go back to my home in Cheshire on my scooter. Later, I had an Isetta bubble car with three wheels to get around in. Very fragile, and not a thought of seat belts!

From a very early age I loved to sing. I remember singing You Are My Sunshine to my father when he was shaving, and for the assistants in my mother's gown shop. When the annual pantomime came around I was first up on stage when the 'Dame' invited "Any children in the audience, come up and sing." In the school holidays my parents often took me to the Manchester Opera House to see American musicals, 'Annie Get Your Gun' being my favourite. Oh! How I wanted to be Annie! When I was around eight years old I made my first recording. It was at the Belle Vue Pleasure Gardens in Manchester. They had a recording booth where you could 'make your very own record: I sang The Woody Woodpecker's Song, and I still have the little record.

My Grandfather, William Collier, was a person of some note. Alderman, judge, and a Freeman of the City of London, he had made his fortune by inventing a machine that automatically sliced and wrapped bread in one operation, for his large bakery in Leigh, Lancs., 'Duva Bread: A convivial and jolly man, he loved to entertain the leading music hall and film artists of that time in his home. I especially remember George Formby, Norman Evans, and Tessie O'Shea. Maybe that's where I got a taste of showbiz from, as my father, William 'Bill' Collier was quiet and shy, and my beautiful mother Connie couldn't sing a note.

The Southside Stompers with Sheila Collier became very popular. We acquired a manager, Nevil Gorthy, and ventured out of the club to play as far afield as Sheffield and Liverpool. I would travel in my bubble car, often giving Norman, the very large banjo player, a lift. Banjo on the back shelf, we two on the bench seat, he would almost turn the little car over when he pushed open the front 'door' to ask directions! I remember awful Manchester 'smogs' - dirty winter fog caused by the coal burning chimneys, when we took hours to get home, one person walking in front of the car to show the way.

In 1959 we made a long-playing record. It was organised by Barry's Record Rendezvous. The venue was none other than the Free Trade Hall, where the Halle Orchestra were resident. The huge concert hall was empty, apart from the band and me. They stood and played on the stage while I had to stand and sing facing the band in the front row of the stalls! A single microphone dangling from the high ceiling picked up the recording. I still have that heavy shellac record to this day, and it stands up well as a document of that time. I sang Young Woman's Blues, Cake Walkin' Babies, and The Glory Of Love.

The most notable jazz club in Liverpool was The Cavern, on Mathew Street. The Southside (and me) played at the club on several occasions, and during our interval a local rock band would play. I well remember sitting in the band room just off the side of the stage chatting to the interval group, who just happened to be The Beatles. My favourite Beatle was always John Lennon. He was studying art at Liverpool College of Art, as I was in Manchester. I'm ashamed to say we went to the pub round the corner when they did their spot. The Cavern was quite rough and scary, but with a great atmosphere - and we all know happened to The Beatles!

Sometimes a group of us would drive to London to the all-night sessions at the Ken Colyer Club 51 and the Cy Laurie Jazz Club. One night at the Club 51 I sat next to Judith Durham of The Seekers. When I asked Ken Colyer if I could sing a song with the band, he turned me down. But he didn't let Judith Durham sing either! I seriously considered going to live in London to take more part in the high Trad Jazz boom, but decided to stay in Manchester and finish my degree.

At our club in Salford we often had visiting musicians to sit-in for a number or two, and I especially remember Roy Williams, from Bolton, playing trombone while on leave from doing National Service in the Army. I met my future husband, Vic Lord, at the Black Lion. He came with his friend, trombonist Pete Armstrong. Vic and I started to go out together, and when he had finished his National Service we married, in 1961. I was 21.
 

Part ll - The 1960s and '70s

 

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