CHAS McDEVITT

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(Extract from 'Skiffle the Definitive Inside Story')

One of the few groups to have come through both the jazz club and coffee bar environment, the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group was the only other British skiffle group, along with Lonnie Donegan, to achieve success in the U.S.A. 

Charles James McDevitt was born in Glasgow on 4 December 1934. Glasgow seemed to be a catchment area for future skifflers; Lonnie Donegan, Nancy Whiskey, Jimmie MacGregor and Jimmy Jackson were also born there. After moving south to Hampstead, the McDevitt family decamped at the beginning of the war, to Camberley in Surrey. Chas' father was a master tailor and business in the shape of the troop concentrations at Aldershot and Sandhurst were close at hand.

During a prolonged illness in 1950-51 Chas started playing the banjo, a gift from the local baker.  His interest in jazz and the blues developed during this period and he was corresponding regularly with such blues artists as Josh White and Lizzie Miles who was singing with Sharkey Bonano's Dixielanders at the Mardi Gras Lounge in New Orleans. As soon as Chas returned to college he began playing with the local Dixieland band, the High Curley Stompers, often featuring within the band a small ensemble; piano, bass, banjo or guitar and drums or washboard. Then it wasn't called skiffle, just barrelhouse music. They played songs like; 'Down by the Riverside', 'It's Tight Like That' and 'Trouble in Mind'.

At the end of 1954, Chas had moved back to London and in 1955 he was playing banjo with the re-formed Crane River jazz band. The only link with the seminal band of 1949 was Sonny Morris, the original second trumpet to Ken Colyer.  Sonny occasionally fronted the band together with the regular leaders, Neil Millett and Mole Benn.
By day Chas was working at Unilever House in Blackfriars and during his lunch break would rehearse the skiffle group in the basement archives. Marc Sharratt, a pal from the early High Curley days played washboard and various guitar wielding mates would augment the floating personnel; John Summers on guitar, Ken Aggus on mandolin and Reg Linay on guitar and piano.

Chas could often be found in Soho during this period, busking with the mighty Redd Sullivan, a real eccentric and Leadbelly freak.  At a brisk pace, marching through Soho, Redd would start singing in his powerful bluesy voice and Chas and Marc would scramble along behind trying to keep up with the giant's stride. Zom another Soho face would bring up the rear.  When Redd found a suitable pitch or doorway, and if sufficient punters had tagged along Pied Piper like, he would stop and they'd sing two more songs.  Then it was up to Adam, the bottler; he would pounce on the more affluent looking spectator, hold out his collecting bag and they'd bottle and go before the law could move them on.  This always proved to be a fairly lucrative gig, especially during the Soho fair. Redd Sullivan and Zom would later join John Hasted's skiffle and folk group, resident at the 44 Club in Gerrard Street.

The Cy Laurie jazz club in Windmill Street was almost as well known as the Windmill Theatre, the home of strip-tease. It was a venue that had a cult following and Chas featured a trio here during the interval sessions, the St. Louis Trio, a name bestowed on them without their knowledge by Cy Laurie.  Marc Sharratt was on washboard and Pete Timlett on piano. Pete was the regular piano player with the Crane River and Chas' skiffle group had a regular spot with the band.  The group now included Dennis Carter and Alex Whitehouse on guitars; Alex had joined the group whilst Chas was playing at the Fantasie coffee bar in the King's Road Chelsea.  John Paul came in on bass, having taken over from Ron Ward who had left to join the Ken Colyer Jazzmen and skiffle group.

For a while the group played the usual jazz clubs, such as the Kingsbury baths, often the scene of teddy boy punch-ups, and at the jazz club over Burton's in Kingston and the Weyman's Hall in Addlestone in Surrey. At the same time they played regularly in the Breadbasket, the Gyre & Gimble, the Cat's Whiskers and the 2 I's coffee bars.

In November and December 1956, for four consecutive weeks they entered and won a talent contest promoted by Pye on Radio Luxembourg.  On the last week they lost to a Noel Coward style pianist, their choice of song; 'Freight Train', sung by Chas.

The group had already recorded 'Freight Train' for Oriole Records; thanks to the demo discs produced by their new manager, Bill Varley. Bill ran Trio Recordings, a small studio in Tin Pan Alley. It was Varley who suggested that to get an edge over the other skiffle groups they should include a girl in their line-up. Folksinger, Nancy Whiskey, who had also appeared on the Radio Luxembourg talent competition was invited to join the group. At first reluctant to give up her folksinging, she joined the boys at the end of December 1956.  They re-recorded 'Freight Train' with Nancy taking the vocals. On the same session they recorded; 'Cotton Song', 'New Orleans' and 'Don't You Rock Me Daddy O'.  The last track was released on Embassy records, Oriole Records' cheap subsidiary that sold in Woolworth's.  They used the pseudonym 'The Cranes Skiffle Group'.  'Worried Man', originally recorded for Embassy, whilst Jimmie MacGregor was with the group, was substituted on their second Oriole release.

About that time they also won other talent shows at the Hammersmith Palais which resulted in their making guest appearances with Lou Preager's band, Freddy Randall's jazz band and in concert with the Eric Delaney band, with whom Chas was sometimes featured as skiffle singer, with Eric Delaney playing washboard.

The group made their first major appearance at the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road.  The show's promoters were, Bert Ambrose the celebrated band leader and Joe Collins the impresario, father of the then starlets, Joan and Jackie Collins.

On Easter Monday, 22 April 1957, the group played the Royal Festival Hall in London's first big skiffle session which included; Johnny Duncan, Ray Bush and the Avon Cities jazz band and skiffle group, Bob Cort and Dickie Bishop. Rollercoaster records released a mini album of the McDevitt group's contribution to this epic show, using tapes that had lain dormant until 1994. The excitement of this event is captured faithfully and demonstrates that audience hysteria didn't only start with the Beatles. There are existing tapes of two renditions of 'Mama Don't Allow' by the whole ensemble; maybe one day they will be released.

In June  the group appeared on the first 'Rock Across the Channel' on S.S. 'Royal Daffodil'.  The 2 I's had chosen a day trip to invade France with rock and skiffle.  It never really caught hold at the time but nowadays there is a cult following for this music in France, Holland and Germany, which puts the British fans to shame. Chas regularly takes the current group over and remembers vividly a show the McDevitt group and the Donegan group played in Nantes in 1984. The audience were all either rockabilly or black leather rockers yet they were so knowledgeable about the music and it's origins, it was a sell-out show.

 May 1957 saw the major change in the group's personnel.  Alex, Dennis and John left and formed the Oldtimers skiffle group.  They were reluctant to abandon their successful careers for the precarious life on the road. For a while Jimmie MacGregor was with the group, but left to join the City Ramblers just before 'Freight Train' hit the charts. He was replaced by Tony Kohn, formerly with the Ghouls and the Cottonpickers.  Bass player, Bill Bramwell was recruited on guitar and on bass, Lennie Harrison, the daddy of the group. Before the war Lennie had played in Paris with Benny Carter and Django Reinhardt and even before that with some early jug bands. He had also accompanied Big Bill Broonzy on one of his visits to the U.K. Lennie was a much loved character often seen around Archer Street on a Monday morning, regaling everyone with his outlandish stories about his experiences; all so unbelievable yet always proved to be absolutely true.

With promotion on radio and such television programmes as the popular '6-5 Special', 'Freight Train' zoomed into the hit parade on both sides of the Atlantic.  Gerry Myers a disc jockey in Canada had plugged the record regularly; this was picked up by the nearby New York jocks and in no time it was a hit throughout the U.S.A.  It peaked at number 4 in the Variety disc jockey charts but was overtaken by Rusty Draper's version in the Billboard chart. Nevertheless by the end of July it had become a million seller. No doubt this was achieved with the impetus provided by the trip the group made to New York at the end of June 1957. They were booked to appear on Ed Sullivan's Show, on the same day that the Everley Bros. first sang 'Bye, Bye Love'. On this occasion Marc Sharratt's washboard was classified as a musical instrument and at first it was thought that the group would suffer the same fate as Lonnie Donegan and not be allowed to play their instruments.  The American Federation of Musicians relented a little and gave them the nod, providing they use three American musicians. Consequently the group was augmented by such noted session musicians as; Hank Garland and Billy Mure on guitars and Sandy Block on bass. One more performance took place at the famous Palisades Park (as featured in Freddie Cannon's hit song).It was held alfresco and the show included the blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon singing his hit 'Who, Baby, Who' and the doo-wop group the Heartbeats singing, 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool'.Chas recalls having to follow an act that jumped off an eighty foot tower on horseback, into a tank of flaming water.

It had been very difficult to get working visas for the group, so Chic records, their American label employed Lauri Ames as sponsor to facilitate their entry into the U.S.A. Lauri had family connections with trhe Teamsters' Union, a useful ally in her quest for working permits.Unfortunately they were only cleared for one day's work.Chas still has the entry in his passport and when he showed this recently to immigration officials at the customs in the U.S.A. they were absolutely amazed that such an arrangement could have been made. Another arrangement that was made at the time was that their proposed appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show should be brought forward by two weeks to counterbalance the recent appearance by Rusty Draper.When Chas naively enquired how this had been managed he was informed,

         "By bed-room diplomacy!" 

The group was scheduled to appear on Alan Freed's 'Big Beat' T.V. show on their last day in New York. However this had to be cancelled as any later flight would have caused them to miss their opening night at London's Finsbury Park Empire, and this was the beginning of what proved to be a record breaking tour of the Moss Empire circuit.

Whilst in America, Nancy had agreed to sign representation forms with Lauri Ames.  When Chic Thompson, the head of Chic records heard of this, fearing Nancy might leave the group and thereby endanger his investment, he pulled the plug on the venture, and any negotiations for extending the trip were cancelled, both with the A.F.M. and with the agencies back in the U.K. Arguments over expenses between Ames and Chic records swallowed up any payments due to the group; even the fee from the Ed Sullivan Show was absorbed by the squabbling parties.This, together with pending litigation over the copyright of 'Freight Train', caused even more mayhem.Eventually the copyright argument was settled amicably out of court; all interested parties receiving an equal share of the performing rights. Chic Records then disappeared into the blue beyond and no record royalties were ever paid out from the U.S. sales. 

         On their return from America, Nancy had given notice that she did not want to renew her agreement.She had never been happy as part of a group.  Her much publicised outbursts made headlines, like;


All this did not endear her to the skiffle fans nor did it help the atmosphere in the group.Part of the reason for Nancy's disquiet could also have been the result of turmoil in her personal life. In August, just before she left, the publicity broke;


Nancy had announced to the press that she was engaged to Bobby Kelly, prompting Kelly's wife to announce that this couldn't be. The ensuing publicity might have helped boost the figures for the last few days of the Moss Empire tour, but as far as the group was concerned it was publicity that they could have done without. Nancy stayed until the end of the tour; enabling Chas to audition for a replacement in every major city they played. Hundreds of hopefuls were auditioned before it was decided that Shirley Douglas, (who they had heard down the line over a B.B.C link-up with Belfast), should join the group.She made her first appearance with them on a television show, 'Now, the Hop Fields'.

'Greenback Dollar' was the second record with Nancy to enter the charts, but 'Face in the Rain' and 'Johnny Oh', technically better records, failed to register.The skiffle group had made a guest appearance in the movie 'The Tommy Steele Story' and on its release in September 1957; it prompted a brief re-entry for 'Freight Train'.

When Shirley Douglas made her first record with the group, 'Across the Bridge', it was released at the same time as Nancy's last record with the group, 'Johnny Oh'; consequently they were in competition with each other, neither getting their fair share of promotion.However Shirley quickly established herself as a firm favourite with the skiffle fans. Her folksy soprano voice added another dimension to the group's repertoire. 

Already there was Chas specialising in the skiffle standards and folk beat songs; Tony Kohn, he of the rich brown voice, covering the blues flavoured titles like 'Everyday' and 'I Want a Little Girl' and Bill Bramwell featuring the scat/jazz songs such as 'My Old Man', once recorded in the 1930's by The Five Spirits of Rhythm.

Maurice Burman, reviewing in the Melody Maker, a broadcast by the Chas McDevitt skiffle group, on 'Saturday Skiffle Club' 1 July 1957 picked up on this reference to the 30's group.He reported;

"In fact the line up of this group was similar to the 50's Skiffle groups; two guitars, a tipple guitar, bass and suitcase played with two clothes whisks.Substitute a washboard for the valise and you have the forerunner of Skiffle.
"You could have knocked me down with a feather when one of the McDevitt guitarists came forward and sang the ancient and honourable jazzer 'My Old Man' with a good beat and style.
"The Chas McDevitt group, unlike nearly all Skiffle outfits, contains good musicians.And because of that the players show taste and sensibility in their music."

Maurice Burman was so impressed that on this occasion he awarded his weekly 'Burman's Bauble' to Bill Bramwell.

He might not have been so generous with his plaudits had he been aware of another one of Bill's talents.Bill would always succeed in commandeering the front passenger seat in the group's mini-bus.He would jump in quickly, nursing his little hip-flask, whilst the rest of the boys loaded his guitar and amplifier; then he would remove his shoes and place his feet over the hot air duct, filling the vehicle with a nauseating malodorous funk.

The McDevitt group undertook numerous nationwide tours with; Slim Whitman, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys and with the fabulous Treniers, replacing Jerry Lee Lewis who had been withdrawn from that particular tour because of the scandal surrounding his marriage to his 13 year old cousin.

By the end of 1958, Tony Kohn was called up for National Service reducing the group to a quintet for a while.Eventually Chas disbanded the skiffle group bringing in Les Bennetts and Red Reece, both from Les Hobeaux skiffle group; Les on guitar and Red on drums. Shirley Douglas was now playing electric bass-guitar. Shirley got this job as she was the only one capable of picking the bass notes and singing at the same time.When Les left to join Lonnie Donegan, Roy Powell came in on piano. The Freight Train Boys, as the backing was now called had metamorphosed into a skiffle/rock band; their last record for Oriole being 'Teenage Letter', a song recorded by Big Joe Turner to be covered later by Jerry Lee Lewis. This was an out and out rock number and featured a tearaway trombone solo.

When the group finally disbanded, Chas and Shirley continued as a duo in concert and cabaret, eventually splitting up in 1975.

In the 1980's Chas was re-united with Marc Sharratt and John Paul. With Nick Lawrence on guitar, they toured on the Continent and appeared in Rock Festivals throughout the U.K.Returning from one such engagement in Holland: Marc Sharratt was killed in a head on collision; it was his 58th birthday, 16 May 1991. A bitter blow to his many friends who held him in esteem not only as a washboard wizard but as a great raconteur and truly eccentric character. His technique was unique, both beating and scrubbing the board. At the height of the craze he had a standing order with Timothy White's the hardware store for the metal ridged inserts to the washboard, he'd beat one flat in a week.As a publicity stunt he had his fingers insured with Lloyds for £5,000. Had they realised the potential danger and seen how his knuckles were pitted with zinc chips, often covered in blood, they never would have taken the risk.  John Paul, no less a personality played on with Chas for a while but on 8 December 1994 he unfortunately succumbed to cancer.

The Chas McDevitt group still survives. Chas fronts various combinations; sometimes with Steve Benbow on lead guitar, Jack Fallon on bass and Chas' daughter, Kerry on vocals and washboard. On other occasions, Martyn Oram plays fiddle, Mike Martin, guitar and banjo and Richard Sharp on bass. The Lonnigans Skiffle Group also back Chas and indeed they are featured on Chas’s recent CD on Rollercoaster together with some tracks with backing by the West London Rhythm Kings, a New Orleans Jazz Band.

So the Chas McDevitt 'Freight Train' still rolls on, fired by the re-issue on Rollercoaster and Bear Family records of all the early material and new recordings by Chas with various combos..

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