Blind Willie McTell


It was one of those typical warm September days when the memories of a washed out summer are erased from the brain by the sheer beauty of the light shining through the window of the classroom and your whole being becomes totally mesmerised as you squint your eyes and watch the myriad particles of chalk dust dancing about in the sunbeams near the blackboard.  It was the first day of a new year for me at Addey and Stanhope grammar school in New Cross Road, Deptford, SE8.  Not just any year, this was 1962, the start of the 5th year, I was almost 15, when everything is geared towards getting you ready for choosing a path for life.  I was engaged in my reverie watching the dust in the golden rays of the sun and thinking about why is it that it is always sunny when you go back to school after the soggy holidays when I became aware of my name being mentioned by our form teacher.  I turned to look at her and she said that there was a new addition to our class, his name was John Stewart and he was re-sitting the fifth year, and he would be sitting next to Howard Rogers (me).  John was a squat boy with a thick head of black curly hair, a wide face and thick black rimmed glasses.  He wore winkle picker shoes and his uniform was a bit scruffy (much like me really).  I didn’t realise it but this was the most significant event of my whole time at school, a life changing moment that set the tone for the rest of my life.  I had seen John before at break times etc but, as he was a year above me, I had never spoken with him, nor paid much attention to him.  It was John that started calling me Harry, on that first day, he said he would never remember Howard, and Harry was easier for him.  I didn’t say no to this, in fact I adopted it readily as I had always hated my name mainly because the only word that rhymes with Howard is Coward and this had caused me to have many fights as a child trying to prove I wasn’t one.  On this day things started changing, at break time I introduced John to my friends, John Radford and Paul Delroy (now sadly dead) and we became THE group of oddballs in our year.  John R and Paul were both into music by the Hollies and The Beatles, John Stewart was into Jazz and Blues, and I was into early Phil Spector and Buddy Holly stuff.  We used to go to the Café in Friendly Street at lunchtimes where we listened to pop music on the radio, drank black coffee and smoked old Holborn rollups, and talked about how shit it was at school, girls, rock and roll, films, and books.  We hit it off fantastically well and were friends for the rest of my time at school.  John and I became very good mates and I used to go back to his house after school where he showed me his drawings and paintings.  He was a great artist and had lots of nudes that he had sketched over the previous few months.  He was a beatnik really and he introduced me to Jack Kerouac through his books “On The Road” and “The Dharma Bums”.  Also he had a collection of modern jazz records that were very cool including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, also some folk albums including one by Odetta with “The House Of The Rising Sun” on it.  I was impressed and he was always turning me on to new things.  One November lunchtime in the Friendly Cafe he asked whether I fancied going to Catford Library that evening to attend a blues appreciation society evening meeting.  I said yes and that night we arrived on the first floor of Catford Library where we found a circle of seven or eight chairs in the centre of a cold and draughty room with a Dansette record player on the lino covered floor in the middle of the circle with a few Long Playing records piled up beside it.  Sat on the chairs were John and I, a couple of men in their thirties, and a younger man who was the tutor for the group.  We spent the next two hours listening to tracks from LPs by artists such as Sleepy John Estes (Milk Cow Blues – recorded in Memphis by Victor in 1929), Robert Johnson (Crossroads), Son House (I’m Leaving You), Muddy Waters (I Can’t Be Satisfied), John Lee Hooker (Boogie Chillen), Howlin’ Wolf (Moanin’ at Midnight),  Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Memphis Slim, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Victoria Spivey, and a host of others over the next couple of months.  I was knocked sideways by this introduction to the blues, music like I’d never heard before1.  We went to these for 6 weeks.I was born on October 6th 1947 in the Bridge Hotel, Wellesley Road, West Croydon, where my father (Ken Rogers) was a musician playing piano and piano accordion and all my life I had listened to him playing popular songs from the shows and also Jazz standards by the swing bands of the thirties and forties (he could play a mean boogie woogie piano which he claimed he got from listening to his favourite piano player, Fats Waller.).  He was keen on jazz pianists such as Errol Garner, George Shearing, Oscar Petersen, Count Basie and Duke Ellington and could play in all their styles at will (no mean feat!) .  My mother (Pauline) was a singer who loved Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and my father would accompany her while she sang in the bar of the Bridge Hotel, and later at The Bricklayers Arms, Trafalgar Road, Greenwich2.  People loved them and the pub was packed out by early evening every time they played, and it was OK, many of the songs they played and sang came from the second world war, it was a right old sing along South East London pub where anyone could get up and sing, or play an instrument.  My dad seemed to know all the standards of the day and more, and if he didn’t know a song he would buy the sheet music, sit in the upstairs toilet, otherwise known as the music room, sometimes for hours at a time, and learn it in time for the next session in the saloon bar.  He was amazing really and practiced on the piano and the organ for at least two hours a day for his whole life.  Music was absolutely everything to him.  Also there were a lot of musicians who used to turn up and jam with Ken and this often led to late night lock-in sessions with a lot of torchy Jazz (Moonlight in Vermont, Autumn Leaves, On a Clear Day, which I find quite nostalgic when I hear them now) being played.  My brother Bruce and I used to serve drinks to the chosen few, (mostly local villains and their girl friends, and ageing musos) who would sit around chatting with Pauline, and joining in the music, sometimes until dawn.  Looking back at this nocturnal activity it is no wonder I flunked it at school, however I did learn a lot about people in these sessions and this served me well when I started my forays up West.  However, I didn’t dig it very much, serving booze and fags to these old timers, because I was a young boy with other things on my mind I guess, and also it all seemed a bit square to me at the time, but not so much in hindsight, age is a strange lens in the way it can change perceptions.  Once I had started listening to the Blues though I was well and truly hooked on a different form of music (and still am) and I guess I always will be.  Eventually I discovered the whole West End club culture and the vibrant music scene that was roaring along there but it was those few draughty evenings in Catford library that set me on my way and ultimately gave me the grounding that my Mod taste in music would be built on, and for that I owe a great debt to John Stewart (or Angel John as his Beatnik mates called him), I wonder where he is now, last time I saw him was in the early 1970’s he was living in Clapham and seriously strung out on smack (heroin), I hope he managed to kick his habit and is out there even now living a happy life.

1 – I heard someone on the radio say that his introduction to music written and performed by black people in the 1950’s was a shock to the system and had changed his whole life, from that moment on music really meant something and made him feel “cool” for the rest of his life and that is exactly how I feel about this experience.  As a fifteen year old know nothing kid this was mind blowing and paved the way to my life long love of Blues, Jazz, R & B and Soul.

2 – Later to become known in the 1970’s as the site of Harry’s Bar where many musicians from the Punk Rock era were to be seen and heard, most notably Jools Holland and Squeeze).

Harry Rogers in the Yellow Room, 1st April 2021


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