Much has been written about Soho’s early history – the house of Mrs Cornelys, Mozart’s prodigal appearances, Marx’s poverty, and De Quincey’s opium dreams. More still has been engendered about the members’ drinking clubs and their illustrious patrons. But its demi-monde history does not begin or end there. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s Soho was a magnet for cultural and criminal innovation: freeloaders and freethinkers, outsiders, predators and rock’n’rollers who set the pulses of England racing. The unthinkable happens in Soho. Its fascination holds because this haphazard network of tottering buildings, dreadful drains and dark allies has a mysterious power over people. Soho makes room for what Argentinian poet Jose Luis Borges called “circular time”. Here, things, and people, return to where they once were.
The first point of entry in post-war England was the 2Is coffee bar on Old Compton Street. In conversation with The Revisionist, James Morton, explains:
Paul Lincoln ran the 2Is. He was an Australian who started life working on a wrestling booth in a fun fair. He would be dressed up as a schoolboy saying, ‘I want to have a go. I want to come in with you.’ They would say, ‘Go away, kid. Go home to your mother.’ But he would persist. The whole thing was a set-up of course.
Eventually Lincoln came to England with his mate, another wrestler, Ray Hunter. Together they were involved in the British boom of professional wrestling. Lincoln styled himself Dr Death. He also sparked off all-night jazz sessions going across the Channel or along the Thames. He was a brilliant publicist.
Lincoln achieved greatest fame not as a wrestler but as the proprietor of a café that witnessed the birth of British rock'n'roll. It was situated at 59 Old Compton Street. His partner, Hunter, lived opposite above a Chinese restaurant. The café was first run by two brothers, Freddie & Sammy Irani, hence the name: "2i's Coffee Bar". By 1956, the Irani Brothers moved to 47 Frith Sreet where they opened a nightclub, "The Cote d’Azur".
So the two Australian wrestlers Paul "Dr Death" Lincoln and Ray "Rebel" Hunter took over the lease and opened the doors to The 2i’s on 22nd April 1956. They thought that the prime location between Wardour Street and Dean Street would ensure abundant passing trade. But they were mistaken. The whole of Old Compton Street was jam-packed with Coffee Bars.
In July 1956, during the Soho Fair parade, Lincoln watched a skiffle band called The Vipers marching past. He invited them to come back to perform regular spots. They ended up taking a residency and starting the skiffle craze.
Lincoln was now on the lookout for more talent. There was a small, slight young man called Charlie Harris who swept the floor of the 2Is, and emptied the ashtrays in order to get a bed bove the bar and play the piano after hours. “Fingers” Harris did a convincing replay of Jerry Lee Lewis’s frantic piano style. Lincoln, the promoter of variety shows and wrestling matches thought he could do with a new name and a bit of sharpening up. But otherwise he fitted the bill.
Cut to the Odeon, Elephant and Castle, where Nancy Whiskey’s Skiffle Group with sideman Diz Disley is topping the bill. New discovery Wee Willie Harris, Lincoln’s red band jacket sagging from his slender shoulders and flapping round his wobbling knees, hair dyed a sudden and ferocious crimson to match, is shaking in the wings turning green with stagefright. Ex-wrestler Paul Lincoln, six foot four and built, can see his investment shrinking before his eyes. Only one thing to be done! Picking up the lad by his redundant shoulder pads he throws him out to the lights with a muttered curse: get on there yer bastard.
Hylda Syms, poet and founding member of the Ramblers
The last word goes to gangland historian, James Morton.
Heavies who tried to demand money at the door of the 2Is came up against two professional wrestlers. That was the end of that problem. The 2Is was just a side line to Lincoln. But it became bigger than anything he could have imagined. He later opened a club with Raymond Nash, a very hard Lebanese, and ended up in Spain married to a Korean opera singer. Here his story took a strange turn when his daughter was kidnapped by French gangsters.