by Chris Scott Wilson

Redcar Jazz Club. No better magnet on England's North-east coast during the 1960s on a Saturday (dance night) or Sunday (sit-down audience night) than The Coatham Hotel on Redcar's seafront where the Jazz Club promoted the finest bands England had produced. There was one golden rule before joining the queue to buy your ticket: Always check the alley behind the hotel to ensure a Ford Transit 6-wheeler was parked there. If there was, then you knew the band had arrived.

A 6-wheeler Tranny screamed BIG TIME. Not a 4-wheeler, box-shaped, good enough to do the job, or maybe good enough for the support band. Nah, it had to be 6 wheels. Bull-nosed with wheel spats at the back where the twin wheels on either side oozed mile-devouring power. A bench seat from a scrapped Jaguar bolted facing forward behind the driver's seat, back against a wooden partition to seal off the cab from the cargo bay. Or airline seats if you really had enough cash. And if you knew what you were doing, the very expensive jigsaw of amps, speaker cabinets, drum cases and guitars would fit tightly in the back. You think bands only care about their image on stage? Wrong. A 6-wheeler was, well, cool, and it had to be white or black. And dirty. The dirtier the better. It showed you had put in the miles. A dirty white 6-wheeler had been around. And it just about knew the way home.

Sitting in even a moderate-sized venue today, you can stare at a stage backed by a solid line of Marshall stacks in front of a custom backdrop, a forest of microphones surrounding the elaborate kit on the drum riser, a row of wedge monitors stage-front and then on either side a P.A. system the size of a block of apartments, a complex studio-style mixing desk out in the audience seating area, overhung by a lighting rig big enough to guide in jumbo jets at Heathrow, the whole lot needing a road crew in double numbers to operate it, break it down and shift it all someplace else. It seems almost inconceivable a band with the status of Cream could carry all their equipment in the back of one 6-wheel Transit. But they could. And did.

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The first time Cream played the Redcar Jazz Club on Sunday 13th November 1966, their equipment comprised one Gibson Les Paul sunburst for Eric, a Fender 6-string bass for Jack, one grey 100 watt Marshall stack each, Ginger's trademark silver double-bass drum Ludwig kit and a Marshall 200 watt (yes, 200 watt*) P.A. amp through one 4x12 speaker column on each side of the stage. No drum microphones, only what bled of Ginger's pile-driving rhythms into the vocal mics at the front of the stage. No monitors - they hadn't been invented. No mixing desk - even studios then didn't have comprehensive ones - the musicians balanced the sound themselves from the stage. It was the first Marshall P.A. I had seen and I swear the system cranked enough volume to howl like a hurricane when one of the roadies walked past a live microphone. marshallpa.JPG (13714 bytes)

And Cream were deafening. There were no mood-setting lights, just a couple of hard white bulbs aimed at the stage while the rest of the hall was almost plunged into darkness. Not a small venue compared to those Cream had cut their teeth in, London clubs like Klook's Kleek, the Flamingo or the Marquee, in reality usually damp cellars where they earned some 40 for a night's work; instead the Windsor Ballroom in the Coatham Hotel held some 8-900, Cream's first fee of 75 making the 250 mile journey from London worthwhile (two months later Spencer Davis Group with a juvenile Steve Winwood on vocals pulled 400). The ticket price was about 10 shillings (50p), quite hefty in those days when a local steelworker earned about 12 a week, but you could get lucky. Really lucky. Not many chances in the North-East to see a band the calibre of Cream before they'd even released their first album, only the misleading 45 rpm single Wrapping Paper on the market in the hope of getting a hit to boost their pulling power. Only the B-side Cat's Squirrel gave any indication to ticket buyers what lay in store. It was a conundrum that was to dog Cream's short, meteoric career.

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Spencer Davis Group - Winwood on right

In 1966 the record buying market in the UK was singles led, albums considered unimportant by the record companies, often regarded as merely another way to squeeze more income from songs already released on singles. So albums were either best-ofs, or songs from a band's stage act that weren't individually strong enough to release as singles, or even worse, cobbled-together collections of a few covers filled out with tunes that had been potential singles' material but hadn't quite worked in the studio. The companies swore it was impossible to break an act without hit singles. They needed radio airplay and TV exposure. Cream conformed, compounding the problem by cutting their first tracks with an embryo label, Reaction, who needed a few quick hits to generate enough revenue to stay in business. Yet Cream revealed their real tastes in performance, rarely if ever, playing those chart-aimed singles live.

Ironically, Cream were one of the first bands to break down the barriers and prove albums could provide many times the income of singles, often without much promotion, and swung the balance so far that for several years 45s were almost relegated into becoming album trailers. Later, Led Zeppelin turned refusing their company, Atlantic, permission to release singles into an art form, and it never hurt them any. The crucial years were '67-'70, abetted of course by The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper and its clones, and the fact that radio stations became more amenable to expanding the three-minute formula and gave needletime to album tracks, for which DJ John Peel must take a good share of the credit. Besides, the public was fast learning you could bung an LP on the turntable, lie back and enjoy a cohesive collection of tunes without the necessity of jumping up every few minutes to change 45s.

And that first Cream concert at Redcar Jazz Club previewed their future set lists. Stepping Out, Spoonful, Train Time, Toad, I'm So Glad and more, all following the blitzkrieg thunder of Ginger's tom-toms on the opening N.S.U. We didn't know what N.S.U. meant. We didn't care. Hit square between the ears by unheard of power and volume, we watched amazed as Cream, released from the cage of the three-minute pop song, flew like hawks, wild and free as they picked us up in the claws of their music to carry us along on an exhilarating ride that became a magical free flight. Only after one and a half hours did they release us, leaving us limp, ears ringing when they pulled out the jackplugs and abandoned the stage with a shared smile. It was the biggest surprise of my life.

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Free roaring on stage at the Locarno Sunderland

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Paul Kossoff at Redcar Jazz Club
photo by Graham Lowe

Other nights at the Jazz Club brought surprises that only bore fruit in the months ahead, like a double bill with King Crimson supported by Free, neither with albums to their credit, but only a few minutes after they'd started you knew they might be giants. The Jazz Club's committee was almost infallible, often presenting acts just before they hit big. It wasn't unknown for a little-known band to be booked and by the time the gig arrived, the Gods had smiled. On one such occasion Joe Cocker & the Grease Band had been contracted months before, yet the week they appeared at Redcar With A Little Help From My Friends had hit #1 in the charts, and such was the club's reputation that groups would honour their contracts when they could easily have cancelled to accept a much-inflated fee elsewhere. Cocker certainly played a storming set that night. No-shows were rare, and so conscientious were bands when circumstances prevented them from appearing they would reschedule for the same fee even if in the meantime their pulling power had increased dramatically. Once, The Edgar Broughton Band phoned to stay they were delayed by fog on the motorway but pushed on to arrive about ten minutes before curfew and walked on stage to prove they had tried their best to make the show.

Stepping Out at the Redcar Jazz Club Pt 2

Chris Scott Wilson, 1999

[* This confirms that Cream, Hendrix, The Who were receiving pre-production custom designed gear from Marshall.  The 200 Watt PA didn't enter production until 1967 with a slightly different cabinet.]