Sixties’ Cilla’s starring role on LP cover at a cool Portsmouth club

Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album
Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album
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At the heart of Portsmouth’s Swinging Sixties was the Birdcage Club, Eastney, which from 1965-1967 hosted many great acts including The Who, Small Faces, Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner and Cream.

The club was a Mod stronghold and among the most popular live acts was Jimmy James and his soulful Vagabonds.

Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album

Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album

In 1966 they released their first LP The New Religion. The sleeve notes described their popularity at the Birdcage while the front cover carried a photo of Jimmy and the band on a Birdcage stage invaded by young dancers – including, right in the middle, the young Cilla Gilmore, who was thrilled to be there but also petrified in case her parents or teachers spotted it.

That picture, posters from the club and Cilla’s story are featured in a new publication about the English Mod scene in those days and the book’s title is taken from that album The New Religion.

Cilla recalls how the then Evening News ran a story when the LP was released, trying to discover who she was. ‘I wasn’t supposed to be there, so I had to keep quiet about it,’ she says.

Like a number of other publications about Mods, this new one by Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson stresses the importance of London in the Mod scene, but it also devotes many pages, pictures and interviews with Mods from around the country and that includes many contributions from Portsmouth.

Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album

Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album

The Birdcage is the main topic with its own section in the book, but there are also references to Kimbells ballroom, Southsea, and the Rendezvous Club in Kingston Road.

All those years later, Jimmy James told Smiler that when playing the Birdcage ‘we were like a family... it was like we were going round our mate’s house tonight and we’re gonna have a party’.

John Haynes, who ran the coffee bar in the unlicensed Birdcage, says the club was ‘like a party in your front room’.

Ted Brooks, from Paulsgrove, describes how he stayed at school for an extra year beyond the leaving age of 15, spent the summer working at Billy Manning’s Funfair and ‘spent all my money on clothes’. Initially he would shop in the big stores like C&A but he moved on to the specialist shops and tailors that ‘were all over Portsmouth because of the navy’.

Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album

Cilla Gilmore on the cover of the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds' album

Of course Mods would not buy off-the-peg suits. Everything was made-to-measure. Ted’s suits ‘would cost me about £10 or £12. I used to have three or four suits made a year’.

Ted also bought a ‘fantastic shirt’ from Hym in Arundel Street and had his hair cut there in a salon called Executive where ‘a girl would wash your hair as you leaned back. In those days that was something’.

As well as dancing to records and visiting clubs, some locals played in bands and one of the finest local R&B acts was the J Crow Combo who broke into the London club scene.

Colin Wood recalls how they arrived at the Club Noreik in 1964 to play, supported by a group called the High Numbers – except that when they arrived the High Numbers had changed their name to The Who and the J Crow Combo found themselves playing support to the band ‘bashing their guitars up against the microphone stand and getting lots of feedback’.

Cilla and Ted were among those who attended the recent book launch at the Fred Perry Store in Covent Garden, which, by chance, was featuring their new striped Southsea Deckchairs designs.

After all these years, Cilla is no longer keeping quiet about her moment of fame and she was reunited that evening with Jimmy James and some of the Vagabonds – all still swinging.

Mods: The New Religion by Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson, Omnibus Press 2014. ISBN: 978-1-78038-549-5. RRP £24.95.