Gary James' Interview With Gary Thomas Of
The Bo Street Runners
At the height of the British Invasion there was a band called Bo Street Runners. They didn't play Pop music. They played R&B. Bo Street Runners have quite an interesting story to tell. And Gary Thomas of Bo Street Runners told us about it.
Q - Gary, you teach guitar these days and you still perform?
A - Yeah. I've got a band playing Blues and Soul and a bit of Jazz / Funk and they're called Funky Chicken.
Q - Now, where do you play with this band?
A - Well, we're based on the West coast of France where I live. We play around a town called La Rochelle. It's a very historic town on the Atlantic coast of France.
Q - You play once, twice a week?
A - Oh no, no. I'm too old for once or twice a week. It's very much seasonal, playing here. It's a holiday area. Gigs really are just in the Summer. Nothing much happening in the Winter. I'm trying now just to do festivals and sort of big events rather than just playing bars. I'm too old to play in bars. It's too hard. So this Summer (2011) we did three Blues festivals and that was it really.
Q - Were you born in England?
A - I was born in Wales actually.
Q - And now you're living in France. Why would that be?
A - I grew up in London and spent most of my adult life in London and that's where the Bo Street Runners were formed. I've been living in France seventeen years now.
Q - What brought you to France?
A - Not the music, I can tell you that. (laughs) French music is really not to my taste. It was like a lifetime of going on holidays to France. It's a very popular place with the Brits to spend their holidays. We ended up buying our holiday house here while I was still working in London and gradually that turned into a full time move.
Q - Are you saying there's no Pop music in France these days?
A - There's tons of Pop music. It's not my kind of taste. So having said that, Jazz and Blues are very big in France, but Pop music in France is so unlike Brit music or American music. It doesn't appeal to me at all, but having said that, there's a lot of interest in Blues in particular in France. Always has been. I'm also playing off and on with a British Boogie Woogie piano player called Bob Hall. He's done a lot in the U.S. actually. I'm like his guitar player in France when he comes to France. A few days ago I found more than fifty Blues festivals in France each year. I've just been trying to sell the trio we got to the Blues festivals. It's a huge interest in that kind of music still in France, maybe more than in the U.K.
Q - Got your foot in the door there before the managers and agents tie it all up
A - You've hit the nail on the head there. What happens with the big festivals is, they are exactly what you said, they're tied up with agencies and it's very hard to get your foot in the door. Occasionally the door opens and you get in. It's very much a closed shop. I don't know if it's the same in the U.S. It seems that there are some big European agencies that those festivals go to, then they just get fed the acts, particularly U.S. Blues acts are very big here. It's difficult to break in, but I'm not giving up. It's kind of easier now with the Internet. You can send tracks and YouTube clips, so you don't have to do anything by paper, but it's like knocking on a closed door in lots of cases.
Q - You were in London at really the height of the British Invasion. What do you remember about those times?
A - I was still in school and getting interested in Jazz and Blues. The band that became the Bo Street Runners evolved at the same time as The Stones and a lot of big bands. 'Round about 1960, we were all at school I suppose trying to play.
Q - Here you are surrounded by all these Pop groups, but you were interested in R&B music. Where did that interest come from?
A - Well, in the late '50s there was a huge popularity in New Orleans Jazz. It was called Traditional Jazz in the U.K. or Trad Jazz. If you were a teenager getting interested in music, there was Rock 'n' Roll and there was Trad Jazz. I went down the Jazz route if you like and the Blues, R&B came from that.
Q - So you had this residency at The Railway Hotel.
A - This is a bit later now, after the band had been formed. We had a Sunday night residency at The Railway Hotel, which sadly got burned down a few years ago. It doesn't exist anymore. That's really where we started to grow an audience if you like.
Q - How long did you end up playing The Railway Hotel?
A - Just about a year I would think. We started out with just a few people coming and then it got bigger and bigger. It became, for the local kids, the place to be on a Sunday night I suppose.
Q - How many sets did you do?
A - Well, we just did two. That was the format in those days. You did like, two 45 minute sets. This was in the pub. In those days on a Sunday the pub had to shutter at 10:30 (PM) I think. So, you didn't have to play very late. Even now, pubs have got certain hours they can open. It's become much more liberal in the last few years. Going back then, pubs would shutter weekdays at 11 o'clock and Sundays 10:30 (PM) In the countryside I think it was earlier, 10 o'clock or something. Your playing time was limited by the hours. We'd play from about 8:30, do 45 minutes. That was the kind of format, the standard way pub gigs went in those days.
Q - Is it still like that?
A - No. We're forty years on. A lot of pubs close at 1 or 12 o'clock in the morning. Things have changed.
Q - Is The Railway Hotel where The Stones got their start?
A - There was some connection in that before we played there. A couple of years before we played there, there was a Blues night. There were the two kinds of seminal people in London who kicked everything off, a harmonica player called Cyril Davis who played with a guitar player, Alexis Korner. They were like the roots of R&B in London and London was the center of R&B in the U.K. They started off as a duo, doing interval spots at Jazz clubs and gradually they became more and more popular. They started up a band that played at The Marquee Club. Then they also had a night at The Railway Hotel I think. People like Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger of The Stones used to go and sit in with them. They weren't part of the band, I don't think. So there certainly was a connection there, although The Stones didn't have a residency there, The Who did, while we were playing there on Sunday nights. The Who were known as The High Numbers. They had a Tuesday night residency there.
Q - Did you ever cross paths with The Rolling Stones or The Beatles?
A - It's a funny kind of link really. When I was at school, before the Bo Street Runners, I used to play in various groups in and out of the school. We had a group in which Charlie Watts played the drums. Does the word Skiffle mean anything to you?
Q - That's what got the whole British music craze going, thanks to Lonnie Donnegan.
A - That's right. You're on the case. (laughs) Skiffle grew out of the Trad Jazz scene. A lot of the Trad Jazz bands had within them a guitar player or banjo player. They very often formed an interval group. That's what Lonnie Donnegan did, to play this music called Skiffle, which is all Jazz based, but more vocal. So at the same time the Trad Jazz scene was going on, people were forming Skiffle groups, which is exactly what I did. Through a friend, I was put in touch with Charlie when I was looking for a drummer. We didn't do many gigs I don't think. We probably weren't very good, but I did do a few events with Charlie Watts on drums. At that time he was known as Chico Watts, not Charlie.
Q - I never heard that one.
A - Yeah. He was a great Modern Jazz fan. One of the people he liked was Chico Hamilton, the vibraphone player. Charlie wanted everybody to call him Chico. (laughs) We did a couple of television shows after this television competition that we won, and The Stones were playing on the same bill. I knew Charlie personally, but I didn't know any of the other guys.
Q - Would he remember your name today?
A - Probably not. (laughs) If you fed him the right links, he might remember playing in a Skiffle group whose name he couldn't remember.
Q - Where did this name Bo Street Runners come from?
A - We were all very keen on Bo Diddley, the guitar player. The first name we gave ourselves was The Roadrunners. We used to do a song by Bo Diddley called "I'm A Roadrunner". So when we started off we were called The Roadrunners. It turned out there was another band, I think from Liverpool, who'd also called themselves The Roadrunners. They'd recorded and were well on their way. So we backed off. So, because of the Bo Diddley link, we called ourselves The Bo Street Runners. It's also a play; I don't know if it'll mean anything to you, there was a police force called the Bow Street Runners. They were the first London police force. So, it's just kind of a play on words, which I think most people didn't get. But the Bo is from the Bo Diddley connection.
Q - Who were you competing against in this Ready, Steady Go band competition?
A - It was a national competition, so there were bands from all over the country. A lot of bands from Liverpool obviously because there was a lot of music going on there, sort of The Beatles influence. So there were bands like us. I think one of the stipulations for the contest was that you hadn't had a piece of music published or you hadn't made a commercial recording. So there were groups like us who were playing in bars and maybe student bands from all over the U.K.
Q - But none that the world would have heard of?
A - Nobody ever made it. I only heard this recently, apparently one of the bands that obviously didn't win, cause we won, had Ronnie Wood in it, The Stones' guitar player. I didn't know that then. I've only just read it recently. I think one or two of 'em went professional after the competition, but none of them made it in any commercial sense.
Q - At one point you had Mick Fleetwood in your band.
A - That's right. I was still at school. I was a student. Some of the other guys in the band were already working a day job. When we won the competition, we had to decide really what we were gonna do. There was a lot of promise around. It looked like a bright future. Some of us became professional and two of the guys in the band said "Well no, I'm gonna stay in my job and thanks very much, but goodbye." That was the drummer and keyboard player. We brought in two professional Jazz musicians to replace the two originals. Then, about six months later, they decided to leave 'cause we hadn't had any record success. Mick Fleetwood joined us on drums. He was the third drummer.
Q - Now, how good of a drummer was he?
A - He was technically not as good as the drummers we'd had actually, but he had a really nice feel for Blues, for R&B. He had a good sense of timing. He wasn't technically very accomplished at that time and he was such a charismatic person. He was great to have in the band. He looked fantastic as well. (laughs) He was the thinnest person I've ever met. He's not so thin now. He had loads of charisma and personality. He was just great fun to have around.
Q - Do you feel he used your band as a stepping stone to something better?
A - No, not at all. After he left us, he went back to a band, somebody he'd been at school with maybe, called Peter Bardens, and they were doing lower paying gig than we were. So it wasn't at that point a stepping stone. He just went back to his friend that he was playing with before us. After that, he was picked up by people like John Mayall and that's where, from that, evolved Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac.
Q - Why didn't the world hear more about the Bo Street Runners? Did the record company not promote you? Did you not have the right material? Did you not have the right management?
A - That's actually the million dollar question, isn't it? We won this competition which was in terms of publicity, absolutely mega. We'd done about six TV shows. The competition called Ready, Steady, Win! had a huge audience. So we were poised to make it really big. We had a good record deal, had a good publishing deal. I think there were two factors really that were against us: we weren't that good musically. We were just an amateur group who'd been playing for a couple of years, so technically we weren't all that good, but again, nor were dozens of other bands who became successful. I think we screwed up on the material as well.
Q - How so?
A - The first tune we did was the first song we did for the television competition which was called "I'm A Bo Street Runner". You can find it on YouTube. It was all one chord and that Bo Diddley beat all the way through. It was very, very amateur in terms of songwriting, but because we had all this huge exposure on TV, it actually sold about twenty thousand copies, which in today's terms is a lot of records. But then it wasn't enough to get you into any charts. So following that, we were kind of getting into James Brown and more sort of Soul kind of stuff. We were offered a James Brown tune called "Tell Me What You're Gonna Do", which is kind of jazzy and really away from our kind of Blues roots. I think at that point we were going down the wrong road. We loved the record ourselves. It wasn't commercial. I think really we lacked a kind of direction and lacked someone with professional experience to take us by the hand.
Q - So, if you had an Andrew Loog Oldham or a Brian Epstein, it would have made a difference?
A - Yeah. I'm going to tell you something which is kind of ironic I think. At the end of this television competition, we won it and there was a reception in the television studio in the bar with the people who'd been the judges on the competition. One of the judges was The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein. We met him after the competition at this reception. He got to talking to our lead singer, John. He gave John his business card and said "Give me a call", and we didn't. (laughs) Mistake number one.
Q - What year was that?
A - 1964 it was. The object of the Ready, Steady competition was to find a band to replace The Beatles, OK?
Q - In England?
A - I don't think they were big in the world then. But yeah, the band that was going to replace The Beatles. That was what this competition was for.
Q - Did your lead singer know who Brian Epstein was?
A - Oh, yeah. He was on the panel on the television show giving the points out, like The X Factor sort of thing now.
Q - Didn't he voice any criticism about your band?
A - I can't remember anything about the show at all. We were just in the studio with several hundred crazy kids shouting and I can't remember much about it. In those days, shows weren't recorded. There wasn't the technology to record. So, I've never seen the show at all. It was all 'live'.
Q - Did your lead singer ever tell you he talked to Brian Epstein?