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Category Archives: London History

When Buddy came to London

Exactly 60 years ago today, the world lost an early rock and roll icon: Buddy Holly. 

Buddy Holly (image: Wikipedia)

During his short life, Buddy- who was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1936- made a huge impact on music and left a legacy which would go on to inspire and influence countless future stars. 

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In March 1958 Buddy Holly and his band, The Crickets (who were made up of Niki Sullivan, Jerry Allison and Joe Mauldin) embarked upon a UK tour.

The very first show they played was on the 1st of that month and took place at the former Trocadero Cinema which was located on the New Kent Road, Elephant and Castle. 

Poster advertising Buddy Holly at the Crickets at the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle, 1958

The image below shows Buddy backstage during rehearsals at this now long-lost venue.

Buddy Holly at the Trocadero, 1958

Whilst in London, Buddy and The Crickets stayed at the Cumberland Hotel near Marble Arch. 

The Cumberland Hotel

Apparently Jerry and Joe were so impressed with the service at the Cumberland that they tipped the shoeshine boy £5- a very considerable sum at the time. 

Just over a decade later, The Cumberland would accommodate another American music legend: Jimi Hendrix.

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On the 2nd March 1958 Buddy Holly and The Crickets travelled north of the Thames to play at the Kilburn Gaumont State. 

The former Gaumont State Cinema, Kilburn High Road (image: Wikipedia)

Situated on Kilburn High Road, the building is now home to the Ruach City Church.

On the same day, the band headed into the West End to appear in a live television broadcast of ‘Live at the London Palladium’. Their set included ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘Peggy Sue’.  

To hear audio from that performance- along with still images- please click below:

The picture below was taken during the Palladium performance by photographer, Harry Hammond.

Thirty years later, the same image was used on posters advertising ‘The Buddy Holly Story’; a long running stage musical which opened in London in 1989. 

Buddy Holly at the London Palladium, March 2nd 1958

The 1958 UK tour was compared by a then very young Des O’Conner with whom Buddy became friends.

When Buddy said he needed an acoustic guitar for the tour bus, the pair headed to Denmark Street– aka ‘Tin Pan Alley’- where, according to Des O’Conner, the young Texan tried out “about 17 guitars”. 

Denmark Street as seen from Charing Cross Road

Buddy also visited the Whiskey A Go-Go club on Soho’s Wardour Street where the image below was snapped:

Buddy Holly at Whiskey A Go-Go, Wardour Street (image by Bill Francis, Time Magazine)

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After their first stint in London, Buddy Holly and The Crickets headed on to many other towns and cities including Southampton, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Birmingham.

On the 12th March they returned to the capital for three shows at the Croydon Davis, the East Ham Granada and the Woolwich Granada. 

The former Woolwich Granada Cinema (image: Wikipedia)

After further concerts across the country, Buddy Holly and The Crickets returned to London on the 25th of March for their final UK concert at the Hammersmith Gaumont (now the Hammersmith Apollo).

The Hammersmith Gaumont (now the Apollo) today

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Less than a year after his visit to Britain, Buddy Holly was back in the USA taking part in the Winter Dance Party Tour.

On the 2nd February 1959 he played at Clear Lake, Iowa.

Shortly after the gig, in the early hours of the 3rd February, Buddy crammed into a ‘Beechcraft Bonanza’ light aircraft alongside Jiles Perry Richardson Jr- aka the ‘Big Bopper’ – and the teenage sensation, Ritchie Valens. 

Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper

The trio had chartered the aircraft after experiencing poor weather conditions and problems with the tour buses and saw it as their best chance of getting to their next destination- Moorhead, Minnesota– as quickly as possible. 

The aircraft took off in light snow at 12.55am but quickly encountered difficulties and plummeted to the ground just after 1am.

All on board died instantly.

Buddy Holly was 22 years old. The Big Bopper was 28 and Ritchie Valens was just 17.

Please click on the clips below to hear these three musicians in their prime….

The Big Bopper: Chantilly Lace (broadcast autumn 1958)

Ritchie Valens: La Bamba (released October 1958)

Buddy Holly: It Doesn’t Matter Anymore (released January 1959)

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An Oral History of London’s Dock Workers

In 2017 I had the privilege of participating in ‘Sherbet Dab‘; a project in which London schoolchildren conducted interviews with cabbies and created a film charting the history of the London taxi trade.

The same team have now created ‘Brass Tally Men‘ which examines the work and culture of London’s dock workers between the 1930s and 70s.

To hear the interviews and watch the films, please click here.

From London to Lockerbie: The 30th Anniversary of Pan Am 103

The late 1980s were notable for a relentless string of disasters which affected Britain; the Zeebrugge ferry capsize, the King’s Cross fire, the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion, the Hillsborough Disaster and, as seen recently on this site, the Clapham rail crash.

Christmas 2018 marks the thirtieth anniversary of another of these appalling catastrophes: The Lockerbie bombing. 

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The bar at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 heaved with Christmas travellers as Jaswant Basuta enjoyed a drink with his brother-in-law. 

Heathrow in the late 1980s

As Sikhs, the consumption of alcohol was discouraged but that late afternoon of December 21st 1988 was an exception as Jaswant- who’d been visiting relatives in Southall, west London- was about to begin a job in New York and a merry send off was in order. 

Jaswant Basuta in 2018 (image: UGC/The Daily Record)

The beer flowed too easily however and before long Jaswant realised he was running late. After hasty goodbyes he jogged through Terminal 3’s seemingly endless corridors and arrived breathless at Gate 14– only to find it’d just closed. 

Despite his pleas, Jaswant was refused entry to the flight that he could now see backing away from the gate: Pan Am 103. 

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Jaswant wasn’t the only person to miss that fateful flight bound for New York’s JFK Airport. 

Also booked on Pam Am 103 were Motown legends, The Four Tops. 

The Four Tops in 1968 (image: Wikipedia)

On December 21st the group were at BBC Television Centre, Shepherds Bush recording a performance of their latest release, ‘Loco in Acapulco’ for a festive edition of Top of the Pops. 

A second recording- this time of their classic 1967 hit, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ which was to be broadcast on the show’s new year special- was also scheduled and the group were hoping to get it in the can as quickly as possible so they could get going to Heathrow. 

The show’s producer however cared little for the Four Top’s travel plans and refused to rush the schedule.

Although the group were understandably frustrated at the time, the delay saved their lives. 

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In Harrods meanwhile, actress Kim Catrell, who was in the UK working on ‘The Return of the Musketeers’, was purchasing a Wedgwood teapot for her mother. She too had a seat on Pan Am 103 but switched flights at the last minute in order to complete her Christmas shopping. 

A clip of Kim discussing her decision can be viewed below: 

Elsewhere, former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) who, despite his anarchic image, was a self-confessed stickler for time, was embroiled in a heated row with his wife, Nora whose slowness in packing meant they too had no chance of making the flight. 

John Lydon in his punk heyday

The couple would soon realise just how lucky they were.

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Back at Heathrow, Pam Am 103- a 747 Pan-American Jumbo Jet named ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’- taxied on the crowded tarmac.

The jet was a real workhorse, having flown in to London from San Fransisco just a few hours before. Now cleaned and refuelled, it was ready to head back out across the Atlantic. 

Pan Am’s ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’ pictured at Frankfurt Airport in 1986 (image: Wikipedia)

The Boeing 747 was one of the earliest built, having been delivered to Pan American Airlines in 1970. The company had originally christened the aircraft ‘Clipper Morning Light’ but changed the name to ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’ in 1979.

The 747 under its original name, ‘Clipper Morning Light’ at San Francisco Airport in 1978 (image: Wikipedia)

Shortly before its name was changed the aircraft appeared in the 1978 BBC documentary ‘Diamonds in the Sky’; a series which explored the history of aviation.

The specific episode- ‘Conquering the Atlantic’- featured footage from both inside and outside the 747 as it made a routine flight from London to New York; the same route it was set to travel ten years later on December 21st 1988. 

This now extremely poignant episode can be viewed in its entirety below: 

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Onboard Clipper Maid of the Seas were 259 passengers and crew, including 35 students from New York State’s Syracuse University who’d just completed an international semester in London. 

At 6.18pm the 747’s engines howled into life, powering the huge aircraft along the runway. As it lifted and began to climb through the dark winter sky over west London, air-traffic controller, Richard Dawson watched from Heathrow’s tower and, over the radio, wished the crew goodnight. 

Unbeknownst to all, a brown Samsonite suitcase belonging to nobody onboard lurked within the jumbo’s hold.

A Samsonite case similar to the one loaded onboard Pan Am 103 (image: The Telegraph)

Inside the case, bundled amongst clothing, was a Toshiba ‘Bombeat’ radio-cassette player packed with a small, but lethal amount of Semtex. 

At around 7pm, 38 minutes after departing Heathrow, Pan Am 103 reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 ft and radioed Scotland’s Prestwick air-traffic control to request clearance across the Atlantic Ocean.

The communication was handled by controller Alan Topp who, moments later, saw Flight 103 vanish from his radar screen.

Reconstruction of the moment Alan Topp saw Pan Am 103 disappear from his radar screen

At the same moment residents in Lockerbie– a small, friendly town in the Scottish borders just north of Gretna Green and approximately 70 miles south of Glasgow- heard a deep rumble of thunder overhead which rapidly crescendoed into a deafening roar. 

Several miles above, the Semtex bomb onboard Pan Am 103 had detonated, causing a catastrophic structural failure which ripped the 747 apart.

With its engines still running and wings fully loaded with aviation fuel, the aircraft’s devastated sections plummeted towards Lockerbie in flames, smashing into the ground with terrifying force. 

An animation depicting the moment the device detonated can be viewed below:

At around the same time, a British Airways flight from Glasgow to London passed high overhead.

Glancing down from the cockpit window, pilot Robin Chamberlain saw an inferno thousands of feet below, later describing the sight as “Something that looked like the burning oil fields you see in the Middle East.” 

A BBC newsflash reporting the disaster can be viewed below:

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Wreckage and bodies from the doomed flight were spread over a wide area; across fields, in trees, on rooftops and in back gardens.

Homes were reduced to rubble and 11  residents on Lockerbie’s Sherwood Crescent were vaporised in an almighty fireball. 

According to one of the first reporters on the scene, the immediate aftermath of flaming rubble set against the night sky resembled “the London Blitz of 1940”, whilst a Lockerbie resident likened it to “Walking into hell”.

Another Lockerbie resident, Ella Ramsden– who narrowly escaped with her life when her home was destroyed- was convinced armageddon had been unleashed. 

A blazing impact crater at Lockerbie

All onboard Pan Am 103 perished.

Combined with victims on the ground, a total of 270 people were killed. 

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It wasn’t until 2000 that the individual accused of the terrorist act- Libyan national, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi– was tried at a purpose built court in the Netherlands, the witness box of which is now displayed in the Imperial War Museum.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi

Found guilty of the deaths of all 270 victims, al-Megrahi was sentenced to life but was controversially released on compassionate grounds in 2009 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. 

Al-Megrahi however always protested his innocence and there are many- including some relatives of those killed- who believe he was framed and that many questions remain unanswered. 

The circumstantial evidence for example used to convict Megrahi was dubious, based upon the testimony of Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci who claimed to have recalled the Libyan purchasing clothing (fragments of which were found in the wreckage at Lockerbie) in his shop.

It was later revealed that Gauci had been secretly paid a huge sum for providing this evidence. 

The late Tony Gauci whose statement was key in securing a guilty verdict

It was also said that al-Megrahi had planted the bomb by checking it in at Malta’s Luqa Airport from where it travelled to London via Frankfurt. 

At the trial however no mention was made about a mysterious security breach which had occurred within Heathrow’s baggage during the early hours of December 21st 1988 when a door lock was found to have been snapped with bolt cutters. 

Also, according to Heathrow baggage handler, John Bedford, an out of place brown Samsonite case was spotted on a Pan-Am 103 luggage container before the connecting flight from Frankfurt had even landed. 

Sadly, 30 years on, it seems we will never have full closure over what precisely lay behind the Lockerbie atrocity. 

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