Does everyone remember their first job? Despite having the privilege of interviewing the good and the great my first boss was the scariest but the kindest and in a way the most memorable of them all. Step forward old school Sunday People Newspaper editor Stuart Campbell. I saw an advert in the London Evening Standard for a messenger boy and at age 15 thought this was a first step into journalism. Little did I know then that I would eventually be a news reporter on the Standard.
Making sure that 10am sharp mug of tea was perfectly made and right on time was a real lesson in time keeping and that ninety minute plus journey to work a quick survival lesson for a boy just out of school. Walking through the old Covent Garden from Charing Cross Station to the Sunday People office in Endel Street was always a good start to the day. Mr Campbell asked how I was getting on and we talked about my night school lessons learning short hand/ typing and improved English. Within days this scary man had organised adult education courses on a paid day off each week for us messenger boys. This remained a messenger boy tradition for years.
From messenger boy to junior reporter on a news agency that broke news of the first ever heart transplant in Britain, lead the way with coverage of the hunt for notorious police killer Harry Roberts – only now just released from prison -and letting me get to know Christine Keeler at the centre of the Profumo affair that had old school politics rocking and rolling . I told Christine the sad news that a key member of the scandal osteopath Stephen Ward had killed himself. History suggests he was not such the bogeyman senior politicians and the old school tie would have had us believe at the time.
My job for many weeks on behalf of several newspapers was to keep watch on her Marylebone home waiting for police to arrest her. For long hours night and day I would sit on a dustbin across the road from the flat and her maid felt so sorry for this cold coughing young reporter that I got invited in for hot morning coffee. If you think pop people get huge amounts of fan mail you should have seen the sacks of mail packed into Christine’s flat. A week after my watch was aborted she was arrested with just one photographer still there. A world exclusive for a patient man who would no longer have to share the cost of a pork pie from the local pub- for a long time it was all we could afford.
Great learning time which provided me with the experience to join the London Evening Standard and cover yet more big stories. Got an internal award for my coverage of the Kray gangster trial. In August 1969 found myself the only UK based reporter in Northern Ireland when the troubles exploded in Belfast. In those days the Standard saw itself as a national newspaper although its circulation was only in London and the South East.
Moved from Belfast to cover the Battle of the Bogside and stood beside the RUC police sergeant who fired the first round of CS gas ever used in a riot situation in the UK. Police were losing the battle for control and under immense pressure use of gas was authorised. It spooked the rioters but not for long as amongst them were French students experienced in the use of gas and able to offer recovery advice. Reporters like me did not have gas masks and I assure you getting stuck in the middle of a full frontal gas attack is something you never forget.
My days at the Standard were not all violence and trauma although I think author Max Hastings still remembers joining me lying flat on the ground behind a small wall pinned down by the most accurate of ball bearing fire from catapults. The army helped us to safety and Max still lives to write fine books.
Mick Jagger helped me get a front page story when the Rolling Stone punched/slapped my face while on remand on drugs charges. I had taken a photograph near his then home a Marylebone Road block of flats and he didn’t like it one bit. Wack ,apology, front page story -most of us would probably have done the same.
I had long had an interest in radio broadcasting and after the marine offences bill had put pirate radio ships off air went aboard Radio Northsea moored of the coast of Holland. It had a short life as an English/German language station but still made news. I am amazed no DJ’s ended up in the freezing cold North Sea forever. I went out on a non sea going tug hiding in the engine room to avoid official interest. Broadcasting from boats outside territorial waters was still a grey area but getting onboard in a force 7 gale was as scary as it gets. Imagine waiting for a tiny tug to be lifted by high waves to give you a chance of making a grab for an old fashioned rope ladder. Tug and bigger ship separated by big tyres which played out a huge squashing exhibition to those brave enough to make that grab. The evening’s dinner menu is as fresh in my memory as when I saw it. Sardines in thick tomato sauce.
Off to the newly started BBC Radio London in summer 1970 ready for the station launch on October 6th. A brief stay working on a regional news programme for Radio 4 first. Great thing about those early days was the bonus of learning on the job as there were no listeners to notice. Prime Minister Ted Heath gifted me the three day week in December 1973 and the early shut down for TV. Station manager said yes to a night time phone in show and the rest is history. As the TV shut down the lights went off radio really triumphed and my evening phone in succeeded beyond all expectations.
We talked about sharing baths and showers with neighbours to save water. We talked about the weight of telephone calls so overwhelming the system off line cross line clubs were formed to create on air telephone talk and off air telephone talk. As the lights came back on moves to finish the phone in were abandoned after street protests.
Proud to have been a pioneer of phone in radio and to have hosted the first trans atlantic edition with WMCA in New York and later provided early morning talk for a station in San Francisco.
I have always felt privileged to be able to talk to the good and the great. On BBC London Spike Milligan was at his brilliant mad best. The gentle artistic side of heavy drinker and rabble rouser Oliver Reed was revealed as he talked about his love of the wonderful Shire Horse. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at her charming best was an interesting interview and Australian culture Queen Dame Edna Everage was fantastic as my guest agony aunt. I had suggested the idea and the Dame could not wait. Les Dawson a brilliant comedian but hard work outside of his stage and TV presence where as Kenneth Williams used and suppressed his frightening intellect to make interviews a real pleasure.
As not too many people could receive or hear or knew about BBC London I was able to practice playing music without offending too many people. This lead to the Saturday lunch time show with I later learnt could sell out one of those expensive imports with just one play. Moving from a mixed format of Slade, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan and endless sound tracks as they did not count against the amount of recorded music we were allowed to play soul and jazz began to take over without management really noticing.
Off we went and at last accessible jazz and black music got an additional outlet to the tiny exposure available on British radio. First UK interview with Luther Vandross. In America he was a much sort after session singer and had voiced a big national advertising campaign for Seven Up lemonade. He sang the ad and who should be listening but a seven up sales person. A crate of seven up duly arrived. What was inside Marvin Gaye when he visited the studio I am still not sure but I do know it was not seven up as that does not make you sniff a lot. A casualty of fame and fortune and a complicated individual it was a real honour to chat with a hero. Chaka Khan arrived after a heavy night and early morning partying session and we just about made a chat unlike Motown super star Rick James who a couple of years later in New York apologised for not turning up. He had taken too much medication using a drug that I have not seen on prescription. Heatwave, The Moments, Larry Graham and Roy Ayers were visitors to the Radio London show as were members of the maturing British black music scene like Loose Ends and Light Of The World. Bob James was a favourite. Writer, Producer, Performer and record label boss he has always been music royalty to many including me. His classic training is a long way from the theme music for the big hit TV programme Hill Street Blues or his sublime playing on the Roberta Flack Academy award winning hit The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.
In 1983 The Saturday show had the pleasure of helping sell out the first UK date of the fabulous Maze. Frankie Beverley and the group wowed us all and it is impossible to buy the atmosphere a live gig can create and you would have to go a long way to feel even 50 per cent of those fantastic Hammersmith moments
During this period I had a visit to Radio 1 with in 1977 a short token black music Saturday evening offering on medium wave only. Longer term soul show followed from 1983 with the all important availability of better quality FM on a Sunday night. I really enjoyed the audience interaction as the whole of the UK could now join a music genre available in London but in very very short supply elsewhere. Music for a candle lit dinner added more than a few to the population of the UK as Mothers, Fathers and even sons and daughters later told me.
It was during this period I got to talk to James Brown. He was like a machine gun with words and really hard to keep up with. But he is the boss and he shook my hand just like Sly Stone did and Bobby Womack too.
I joined LBC in 1989 to host the late night show four times a week. My first exposure to advert lead radio it was a great challenge to build up an audience without the ads putting them off. The audience figures were the biggest ever in the history of London night time broadcasting boosted by a big younger following often being naughty hiding under the bedclothes listening when they should have been asleep. Thank you.
Through the years I saw dramatic changes as the station moved from historic Gough Square off Fleet Street to horrible Hammersmith and a couple changes of owners. Gone were the cuddly days and in came brash new expensive broadcasting ideas that just didn’t work for long enough. Longer hours more advert buttons to push plus cost cuts which meant programmes had to share newspapers. To make sure we all realised austerity had arrived some of those newspapers had their own cuts – stories cut out. The newspaper with holes in it.
Owners like management can affect general moral. Who was the famous lady who phoned up to complain about a breakfast time story on LBC the station she part owned. It was difficult to help as she had been listening to BBC Radio 4.
Yet more new owners and yet another move and dreadful management soured my love affair with LBC so in 1998 a move to Jazz FM and a new challenge. Getting up at 4am five mornings a week was no fun but I loved the show and proud of the record audience figures we achieved. In 2002 Jazz FM was sold and my initial contact with the new management convinced me very quickly that disaster was on its way. Time to take a break before the ship sank. Sure enough Jazz FM later called Smooth managed to lose audience to such an extent it will probably remain a radio all time disaster only matched by the squadron of mosquito aircraft who in 1943 blew up a radio station minutes before Luftwaffe General Herman Goring was to make a keynote speech. That really is an audience stopper.
I put on some smooth jazz nights before Jazz FM got taken over and I still meet people who miss Peter White, Bob James and Fourplay, Steve Cole, Dave Koz and friends. Great fun.
Jazz FM returned on Digital but when the station chose to downgrade I thought it a good time to leave.