CLUB 66' at The Wheatsheaf
In the mid to late 1950’s, 80 miles west of London and nestling deep into the Cotswold hillsides, suburban Cheltenham began experiencing a never-before-seen teenage revolution. The austerity of the post-war period gave way to American style coffee bars and basement jazz clubs. Bars and clubs that catered to Cheltenham’s youth and their insatiable appetite for Trad Jazz and the increasing import of ‘devil’s music’ from the United States. Local historian John Appleby made a permanent record of this exciting time for the town’s youngsters in his rare booklet ’38 Priory Street’, the address of one of the more infamous meeting places for the avant garde of Cheltenham.
Another establishment soon to catch onto this phenomena was the Wheatsheaf public house on the Old Bath Road in Cheltenham. A family run pub on the main arterial route between London and the West Country, the Wheatsheaf’s landlord George Webley realised that giving an outlet for the local youngsters to ‘let their hair down’ might seriously increase his turnover. The pub’s skittle alley soon became ‘Club 66’ and started to attract many local jazz, swing, jive and rock ’n roll bands including The Ramrods, still gigging today and others going onto national fame like the wacky Temperance Seven.
In 1958 and amongst this burgeoning music scene, sixteen year old Brian Jones, himself to go on to fame and fortune with the Rolling Stones started to experience the birth of popular music in the UK. A regular visitor to Club 66, Brian soon started to tote his guitar around, taking every and any opportunity to get up on stage with his older contemporaries. And to save himself the entrance fee he often sat on the door collecting admission money as well as issuing and signing Membership Cards.
It was at Club 66 that Dick Hattrell, an early influence on Brian, first met the youngster with an insatiable appetite for the Blues. Dick recalls: “My earliest recollection of Brian was when I visited a jazz venue known locally as Club 66. Brian was on the door collecting entrance fees and checking membership cards, he had this heady responsibility which included issuing membership cards and I guess this was his first tentative step on the ladder to fame and fortune. I remember we chatted very briefly about the music on offer that evening, and a few weeks later he sought me out at The Rotunda in Montpellier, another music venue quite near to the town centre. He’d heard through the grapevine that I had a collection of Muddy Waters records and wanted to borrow a couple to get to know the lyrics as well as the music. He was totally absorbed with Muddy’s unique version of Rhythm and Blues and after mentally absorbing everything from those few discs, he gradually went through the rest of my collection, which included the music of Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin Wolf. I was extremely impressed with Brian’s retention and his almost obsessive interest in these artists, and their kind of music. Our common interests, at this very early stage, really cemented our friendship. When Brian died in 1969 I felt such an enormous loss and to this day remember with fondness the friendship we had all those years ago”.
Trumpeter John Keen, another regular performer at Club 66 remembers Brian’s devotion to the Blues: “Back then it was incredible to see the energy that Brian put into, not only his music but more importantly his organisational skills. I can’t think of many sixteen year olds these days who could run and organise a jazz club like he did. He ended up managing and promoting the whole show”.
The John Keen Jazz Band often included Brian Jones in their ‘Club 66’ line-up and, as the band progressed into the early 1960’s Brian stared to get more of his own Blues gigs and the four piece band, John Keen, Brian Jones, Graham Ride and Dick (Duck) Pond would, for these particular venues, perform under their alternate pseudonym, the Brian Jones Blues Band.
Today, Club 66 is known locally as The Venue. Current landlord of the Wheatsheaf, Maurice Dominey, has regular bookings for the ex-skittle alley and a wide variety of music and entertainment is always on offer.
On Saturday July 1st 2007 the Brian Jones Fan Club organised a gig at the Wheatsheaf as part of the regular get-together in July to commemorate Brian’s death. The guests on the day included The Ramrods, Pat Townshend, one time business partner of Mick Jagger and member of the Rolling Stones inner circle, and legendary 60’s trouser-splitting singer P J Proby.
First to take the stage were progressive rock band Circus, five 16 – 18 year olds from Norwich who recently have so impressed Pat Townshend with their precocious talent and Blues/rock pedigree, that he has sponsored their backline with an ice-white Staccato drum kit saying: “These boys have an amazing talent, and I think Brian (Jones) would definitely approve their playing the Club 66 stage".
Janis Joplin influenced Maria Daines took over from the youngsters and, with her own band, went on to support Pat Townshend performing ‘Long Live Brian Jones’ and ‘What Fame Can Do’, both songs written and recorded by Pat. Incredible harp player John O’Leary sat in on many of the evenings performances and showed his support for the fan club and visitors with some fine solo pieces.
Part way through the evening somebody put a call in and out of the blue the Ramrods turned up, guitars in hand and their impromptu performance just finished off a great night!
So taken with The Venue, Pat Andrews commented, “What a great place this would be for the fans from all over the world who visit Cheltenham to see the places where Brian lived and hung out; to have a permanent living museum for Brian would be absolutely wonderful”. Agreeing with Pat, Brian’s good friend from the mid 60's, PJ Proby, gave his seal of approval and said what a fine tribute to Brian the night had been.