Gail had a friend who worked in Slinkys

Gail had a friend who worked in Slinkys

Fri 01 Feb

‘In the late Seventies I started coming to Soho. I was about 17 and into rock’n’roll. I used to go to see Johnny Thunders and Pattie Palladin at the Marquee. I used to see Angie Bowie singing in a little club. Soho wasn’t regulated then so there were boozers open all night. Anyone could open a club or a bar. You just had to have a room and a licence from the magistrate at Bow Street. I met an American woman who’d been part of CBGB in New York, [a club dedicated to country, bluegrass and blues]. Her name was Gail Huggins. We opened a club together in 1980 – three floors in a house on Gerrard Street. The guy who owned the building had won it in a card game. We used to have burlesque dancers and a rope separating the dancers from the audience because the police used to raid us.

Gail had a friend who worked in Slinky’s, a rubber shop in Walker’s Court. She told me they needed a runner so I started working there. I would go and buy tea and coffee, deliver messages. I got forty to fifty pounds a day which was a lot of money. I found out after a couple of years the shop was owned by two brothers from Sicily. One they called The Man on the Hill. The other one was called Little Man on the Hill. They lived in Hampstead where all the millionaires lived. I went to their house once. I had to take the takings round in a cab. It had thirty-two rooms.

Then they said, “Do you want to be a frontman?” which means if the cops come in you take the rap. So I asked how much. They said two hundred pounds a day. So I worked in their shops and got £800 to £1,000 per week. I just had to stand around so when the cops came in the staff could run out. I just stood there or I’d do a runner so they could chase me. I got nicked 38 times over the next 20 years. I was in prison twice but both times it was my fault. The first time I just ran out of luck. The second time I should have been more alert. I’d got raided a hundred times and just ran out. Once I locked the police inside the shop. Another time I said I was a burglar. You’ve got options as a frontman. You don’t have to take it. But that second time I was complacent.

The brothers were really nice to me. Their mother was Sicilian and their dad was an African Jew. That made them a bit of a handful. As they got to know me they really helped me out. Once I was stranded in Paris. They said, “Stay where you are,” and sent me some money to get home. If I was ill they would take me to a doctor and pay the bill. I had nowhere to live at one point. The older brother gave me the key to a house in Islington he’d bought after the war. I lived there for about a year. He never asked me about it. I just gave him the key back when I was ready. For six months of the year he lived in Beverly Hills. He had his own keys to the Beverley Hills Hotel. He knew Harvey Keitel, Frank Sinatra. He knew everyone. His best friend was Red Buttons. He was in The Poseidon Adventure.

It was a good laugh working in the shops. You’d go to work, smoke, drink, and do what you like. It didn’t matter if you got nicked. The brothers had pictures of all their shops in the old days. In the Sixties the older one had owned a jazz club in Covent Garden called Annie’s Room. The singer Annie Ross was the manager. Anyway he told me about Nina Simone coming over to play there, and that she and her husband were mad. He gave me some of the tapes of her playing.

He had about six shops when I knew him – three next to each other on Old Compton Street. If someone was going to buy a shop he’d buy it. That stopped the competition. He also had a few on Walker’s Court, a couple on Windmill Street.

When you’ve got money, which I did, you can do music. So I worked in the shops and used the money to pay the band and put gigs on. I used to go down Gerry’s. It’s a different scene to the French House. Michael, the barman, took over from Gerry who played Billy Bunter in the fifties on TV. I used to go in the afternoon when you could smoke. It’s still open. I was there the other night. The pianist Kenny Clayton still plays down there.

Every now and then the brothers would say, “Stanley’s working with you tonight. So give him some money.” Stanley Lowe was an old-fashioned conman who’d done some favours for the brothers. They were doing him a favour by letting him work there. He used to tell me about himself. In 1938 he was in America. In a bar he met another con artist called “The Doc”. While the Doc was trying to sell Stanley Brooklyn Bridge, Stanley was trying to sell the Doc Times Square. Finally they called it quits. He was deported from America for forgery and spent the war in Jamaica where Ian Fleming lived. When he came back to Europe he was in Paris and sold the Champs Elysees to the Americans for £2,000. When he came back to London he sold London Bridge, brick by brick. When people walked into the shop he’d give them the spiel. I’ve got a tape of it somewhere. Before he started at the shop he had a travel agency on Old Compton Street where people used to book flights. They’d turn up at the airport and there’d be no flight. He was nasty like that.

Every now and again they’d need someone like Stanley to pay some bills. They’d change the name over to his, then he wouldn’t pay it or something like that. They paid homeless people to use their names as well. They always needed people for that.

Stanley had loads of names. Bogus Bland was one of them. He was very funny but he would nick the gold out of your teeth if you were dead. If you saw him in the street he wouldn’t talk to you; just walk past you. He dressed immaculately. Top coat. Once he pretended to be the Town Crier of Soho. He got loads of money from the council for it. I had to go to his place once and he had goods from catalogues that he’d ordered and never paid for. He used to go to Patisserie Valerie’s and order loads of shit and just walk out. I asked them why they didn’t go after him. They said they couldn’t be bothered.

In the late nineties the brothers worked out you didn’t need a frontman. The internet changed everything. Although the guys were old they knew you had to change stuff. They didn’t need frontmen anymore. They just sold lotions and potions. After a while the police stopped raiding. But the council would come round. They were worse than the police. They were always trying to do stuff. Then the brothers died, one after the other. I went to the funerals in Golders Green.

But in the Eighties and Nineties, celebrities used to come in the shop. One night Peter Cook came in. He opened a briefcase. It had a bottle of vodka in it and two glasses. We had a drink. Bob Monkhouse came in every week. He would ask for the latest films and give us five hundred quid. Every week he did that. Richard Harris would come in every couple of weeks. Lonnie Donegan was a regular. I called him Lonnie once and he was put out. Denis Norden used to come in. Loads of them. That’s how I met Nick Cave. He was having a look around. I didn’t know who he was. We were having a little chat, and he said, “I’m over at the Groucho if you want to come for a chat.” So he put my name on the door. We stayed there all night talking, went back to his place, and spent the next three days together. He played me some of his music, and said, “What do you think?”

I said, “It’s all right. But mine’s better.” He laughed. He gave me some good gigs – one with Johnny Cash. He played at the club I had with Gail a few times.

You meet loads of people in Soho.’

Jake Vegas and The Black Diamonds are a sweet rocking rhythm'n'blues band with a swinging soul

Please leave a comment below.

The White Cliffs of