Raving Upon Thames

Andrew Humphreys offers a comprehensive chronicle of Richmond's Eel Pie Island, breeding ground for trad jazz and the British blues boom

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For some years there have been tales of the Richmond music scene and Eel Pie Island, in the Thames off Twickenham, but nobody has put together a comprehensive account – until now, with the appearance of Andrew Humphrey’s informative and highly enjoyable book.

After a well-researched historical introduction about this suburban area lying south-west of London, and the island hotel, it quickly gets to the music of the post-war period. The early days are documented in George Melly’s Owning Up, which many readers will know, and Humphreys uses this as a basis for the trad period – Cy Laurie, Ken Colyer and the Crane River Jazz Band, Chris Barber and others appear – and its offspring, skiffle, following the island’s purchase by Michael Snapper and its emergence as Eelpiland, under the supervision of Arthur Chisnall.

It’s full of anecdotes and first-hand accounts by many of those who played there, lived in the area, or made up the audiences. It covers the involvement of Harold Pendleton, president of the National Jazz Federation, founder of the Marquee Club and organiser of the first National Jazz Festival at Richmond in 1961, and the mercurial Georgio Gomelsky, who started the Crawdaddy Club. This was the time of the folk boom and emerging R&B scene, as trad made way for the blues-influenced bands – Cyril Davies All Stars, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Graham Bond Organisation, Georgie Fame and many others.

The final years may be less relevant to jazz readers, but no less interesting, as the excesses of rock and psychedelia heralded its decline and final closure, a far cry from the heady days of the late 50s and early 60s. It also saw the arrival of activists who attempted to set up an alternative community on the island and included Clifford Harper, who was to become an illustrator and whose woodcut designs adorned the Seven Dials Jazz Club programme in the 80s.

The book is well illustrated with posters, news cuttings, photos, maps and a comprehensive section of notes and timeline, and is full of tangential asides, not least the early media reports, exemplified by the Weekend magazine heading “Down Among The Dead-beats”, describing the “jazz played by hep musicians who are often doped to the eyeballs”. I think Acker Bilk might have had something to say about that.

Raving Upon Thames by Andrew Humphreys. Paradise Road. paradiseroad.co.uk. 314pp, hb, £20. ISBN 978-0-9935702-3-0.