Although Mike’s activities as the leader of the Mike Stewart Band in Rhodesia have been covered in the BANDS section, his music pedigree and career since leaving Rhodesia, make for interesting reading. This entry concentrates on his activities before, and after, his Rhodesian sojourn…in his own words…
I was born in the East End of London and I started playing piano at around age four, inspired by my Dad, who played mostly jazz, but was the ‘family pianist’, playing for all the sing-along parties that were popular in homes back then.
We moved from London into the Essex countryside, and at age eleven I studied classical violin for two years. I then learned to play drums and percussion, and joined my first pop band at age fourteen, playing bass guitar in local venues around our corner of Essex.
In 1967 when I was eighteen I was invited to play bass in a touring country music trio, which gave me my first taste of playing for a living in more upmarket venues around Britain. The trio was unfortunately short-lived, and I went back to playing part-time again in my local area.
I got married to a girl who among many other attributes was an accomplished singer. In 1970 at age 21 I saw a classified ad in our local paper for a bassist and girl vocalist to join a pop band called Solid Gold which had just signed a 6-month contract to play American army bases in southern Germany. (The Vietnam war was raging, and US bases in Germany were a halfway stopover for troops going to and returning from the war) The band was five-piece – guitar, keyboards, drums, bass and female vocalist.
This became an intense learning period for me. We would play 6 nights a week at a base for a month and then move on to another. What we weren’t prepared for, because nobody had bothered to tell us was that some of these bases would have predominantly white soldiers, and some would be predominantly black. That meant that in the second month our Beatles/Rolling Stones etc Brit-pop material, which had worked well in the white venue the month before was completely wrong for the black audience on the second base.
So we had to very quickly somehow learn enough soul and motown songs to fill 4 x 45 minute sets, or our contract would be cancelled. Although we had only played very few of these songs before we managed it in a week, each evening explaining to the audience our predicament and how we were trying to rectify the problem. During that week we obviously added the songs we’d learned, and the response was tremendous. They could hear us practising all day as they walked past the club, so they knew how hard we were working at getting the right type of material together for them. I’ll never forget the support they gave us, and for which we were very grateful.
One night a week in each club a touring floor show from the US would perform for the troops. Some of them were superb, and inspired me musically in ways I only understood later in life. Even then as a result of this influence our level of professionalism improved, and we saw out the six months, making lots of American friends along the way. Sadly some of them never returned from Vietnam.
We returned to the UK and discovered that further north in Britain there was an abundance of work in the Working Men’s Clubs – something that Southern England didn’t really have, except around London. We reduced to four-piece as my marriage wasn’t fairing too well, and as the guys all had reasonable singing voices there wasn’t the same need to have a female vocalist any more. We fairly quickly established ourselves on the WMC circuit, and became based in North-East England, although we also worked Scotland, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, London and South Wales. Every night we would be in a different venue, so designing a quick set- up and strip-down equipment routine became critical. Many bands at that time used a Hammond Organ and Leslie speaker in their shows. These things were monstrously big and heavy, especially in upstairs concert rooms. No help was ever offered or expected, so we were very lucky that our keyboard player played electric piano instead!
In 1971 we were working the clubs in South Wales when our guitarist decided to leave the band. Being a good friend and having a strong conscience he gave us a reasonable period of notice to find a replacement – one minute!!! We were shattered – although only fledgling professionals we had a month of club gigs lined up, and now no guitarist. The local agent who had booked us (and put up extensive ads) in all the clubs in the area which he controlled was livid. We didn’t have time to look around and find a replacement, and unfortunately our keyboard player wasn’t strong enough for us to continue as a piano/bass/drums line-up, so we had 2 options – to get into the van and head home in the knowledge that we’d never be booked in South Wales again, or to somehow keep the band at a professionally marketable level as a 3 piece, and get going as quickly as humanly possible.
Although I only played a few chords on guitar for fun it was mutually decided that I should move onto lead guitar (no pressure…………. !), teach the keyboard player to play bass and rearrange the vocal harmonies from four-part down to three. We sat down with the agent and explained what we planned to do, and thankfully once he’d calmed down he said that he’d find alternative bands for the midweek shows, but that we needed to be ready for the weekend. This was Monday lunchtime, so we had just four and a half days and no rehearsal room, so the odds were stacked against us.
Incredibly, the owner of the guest house in which we were staying stepped up and offered the use of his front room to set up and practice in. We worked every waking hour and somehow we got the job done. We performed on the Friday night and survived, and over the coming weeks we honed the rough edges off to make the show something we could again be proud of. In the space of just five days the keyboard player had become a bassist – and out of pure necessity I’d started my journey as a guitarist.
We continued as a three-piece for over a year, and I started to develop as a guitarist, although in retrospect I feel I would have ultimately achieved a higher standard if I could have been properly taught – something which I’d always recommend to any aspiring musician. Nevertheless my violin training helped me enormously, especially my left hand technique. Because we were now a trio our fees had been reduced by all the agents who were booking us, but the drop was less than a quarter, so individually we all made more money than when we’d been a quartet.
A few months later in London we were approached by an aspiring record producer named Henry Hadaway. He said he wanted us to record two songs at Trident Studios, and they would be released on the international market. We referred him to our new manager, a London businessman named John Hammett, and they negotiated the deal which included a requirement to change the name of the band from Solid Gold to Bollard. The new band name was awful (we never understood Henry’s insistence with it), the A-side of the record (I Need Your Love) was pretty awful, but the B-side (Sunshine In The Morning) was sort of okay, and we went along with it. A few months later John informed us that it had charted in Canada, but I was never able to confirm it, and we weren’t invited to tour there. When it was clear that we weren’t going to be paid anything (normal for the seedy nature of the music industry at the time) we let it (and John Hammett) go, changed the name back to Solid Gold and moved on. Recently I discovered that both sides of the record have been posted on YouTube, and the person who posted it added a comment that the record company had flipped the A and B sides and it had charted in South Africa. (This still needs verification!!)
(Editor’s note: The trio, known as BOLLARD for the purposes of these recordings, comprised Mick Snell (Mike Stewart’s birth name on guitar and vocals), Mick Blake on bass and Ron Castor on drums).
Along the way we worked with all sorts of different artists– some very good, some mediocre. They all had one thing in common – they all earned more money than me! Some of them were solo guitar/vocal acts who utilised the resident musicians in the clubs to back them, and it wasn’t long before I realised they weren’t doing anything that I couldn’t do myself. So, after a long period of thought and planning I decided to step out into the world of solo entertainment. I was always a shy boy by nature, and although playing onstage had brought me out of my shell to some degree, this leap into the dark meant that I’d have to be an ‘in your face’ performer like never before in my short career.
I worked a month’s notice with the band while I planned my show, and more importantly drew on my classical training in order to write the backing ‘dots’ to my song arrangements so that the resident musicians could back me. I contacted all the agents who had been booking the band, and some of them agreed to give me a shot.
The Working Men’s Club circuit only required two sets a night – either thirty-minutes or forty-five minutes depending on how many acts were on the bill. We had played 4 x 45 minute sets in the US Army bases, so the WMC playing times were comparatively easy. But conversely, while the band had played six nights a week in Germany, not only did we not have a night off in the WMC setup – it was also a requirement to play two shows on a Sunday – lunch and evening, always in different venues. So we never had a day off, nor did we want one.
I started off my solo guitar/vocal career with weekend work only (Friday, Saturday, Sunday lunch & Sunday night) and things went well. Before long I was doing full weeks and making by far the best money I’d ever earned! Over the next year I worked solidly and also did two auditions: one for Butlins Holiday Camps, and one for a Greek shipping line, Chandris Shipping. As a result of these I was offered a seven week season at the Butlins Filey camp in Yorkshire – at the time the largest holiday camp in Britain – and Chandris offered me an open-ended world cruise deal where I’d perform on their worldwide cruise liners and any time I wanted to spend time in any of the ports we stopped at I could jump ship and then later pick up another ship to continue the cruise. Not a lot of money, but full board and from my perspective an ideal way to see the world.
Then one night in a WMC in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne an agent named Peter Hubbard came up to me and offered me a three month tour of Southern Africa. I’d be performing three week stints in cabaret clubs in Durban, Cape Town, Salisbury and Bulawayo. So, my plan was to first do the Butlins summer season, then the South Africa tour, and then come back and pick up a Chandris ship to sail the world.
I did the Butlins summer season and headed off to Durban, South Africa in October 1973. When I got there I was met by the agent’s secretary, who told me there had been a change of plan, and instead of touring I’d be performing for three months in the Killarney Hotel, in a club called Flanagan’s. I worked there six nights a week, doing alternating sets with a really good rock ‘n’ roll piano entertainer named Tony Darrel l(sadly no longer with us). We had a drummer and bass player backing both of us, and we’d all do a rousing rock ‘n’ roll finale as a four-piece, which brought the house down every night. We played to packed houses, I acclimatised to the humidity, made lots of friends there, and some of those friendships have endured to this day.
Shortly before the end of the three month contract the agent asked if I’d like to continue, as we were working really well together, and business was exceptional. I agreed, notified Chandris, and they generously told me that whenever I came back their offer would still be on the table.
I worked at Flanagan’s until April 1974, when they told me that they were sending me to the Las Vegas club in Bulawayo for three weeks, followed by three weeks in Port Elizabeth at the Markham Hotel. By now my show had incorporated piano whenever one was available, and I was told that these were the only two venues currently on the circuit which had a piano available to be wheeled onto the cabaret floor.
As a child I had always known that I was descended from one of Cecil John Rhodes’ brothers. My maternal grandfather Leslie Pretorius Rhodes would sometimes take me to visit my great-grandmother Amy Rhodes, widow of Alfred Rhodes, who had been the Mayor of East Ham in London. In her hallway was a framed family tree of our family relating back to Cecil John Rhodes. Back then it didn’t really mean a whole lot to me, but now that I was going to the country he had founded my anticipation really increased, because I never dreamed I’d ever get to see it first-hand.
In April 1974 I landed in Bulawayo for the first time, and after unloading my personal effects at the flat where I’d be staying I was taken to the Las Vegas club to meet the resident band. For a continuation of this narrative please follow this link: Mike Stewart Band.