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David Bowie and his gigs with the Manish Boys and Level Three in Maidstone and other parts of Kent

By: Alan Smith ajsmith@thekmgroup.co.uk

Published: 06:00, 10 January 2021

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of David Bowie - the singer/songwriter, glam rock star and actor who died on January 10, 2016, from liver cancer.

But although his name is known across the Western world as an icon of pop fashion, few know of the famous musician's links to Kent.

David Bowie turns radio DJ for a Star Special broadcast in May 1979. Image BBC

David Robert Jones was born illegitimately in Brixton. His father, a former Royal Fusilier soldier named John Jones, was still married to his first wife Hilda at the time that Bowie's mother Peggy gave birth to him in 1947. Jones senior later divorced Hilda and married Peggy (Margaret), who had herself been born in Folkestone.

When Bowie was six, the family moved to Bromley (then still in Kent), where he went to Burnt Ash Junior School and showed an early talent for singing and playing the recorder.

He passed the 11-plus, but turned down a place at grammar school preferring to go to Bromley Technical High School so that he could study art, music and design.

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In 1962 he was involved in a playground fight with classmate George Underwood which left him with one permanently dilated eye, giving him a slightly unworldly appearance that he used to full advantage in his later "Ziggy Stardust" years.

Despite the injury, Bowie remained friends with Underwood, who later helped design his album covers, and at 15 he joined Underwood's rock and roll band The Konrads. Bowie played saxophone, Underwood was the lead singer.

David Bowie

After just three months, Bowie and Underwood both quit to join the more blues-orientated King Bees.

There in 1964 Bowie released his first single, Liza Jane, as Davie Jones and the King Bees, but despite appearances on TV's Juke Box Jury and Ready Steady Go! the record flopped.

Shortly after Bowie moved to join the Manish Boys, a band named after a Muddy Waters song and centred in Maidstone, who already had a record contract with the Beatles' record label Parlophone.

The band had been founded by Maidstone Art college student Bob Solly, then 20, and was a six-piece combo, soon to become seven.

Mr Solly, still living at his parents home in Carey Street, Maidstone (near Union Street, but now demolished), later recalled: "Our manager's name was Lesley Conn: 'Conn by name, con by nature' he used to say."

Bob Solly in 1964 centre left and next to David Bowie with other members of the Manish Boys in Mote Park. Image: Bob Solly

"He said he had this amazing singer who would be ideal for us and were we interested.

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"We said no, because there were already six in the band.

"But he was quite persuasive and we agreed the guy could come to our next rehearsal."

Mr Solly remembered the vision that walked into the smoke-filled living room of band member Paul Rodriguez's house in Coxheath that served as the band's practice studio.

He said: "Bowie was dressed in buckskin, with knee-high boots and long blond hair. I thought 'Wow, maybe we should take him on after all'."

The Manish boys from left: Woolf Byrne, John Watson, Mick White, Davie Jones (Bowie), Johnny Flux, Bob Solly and Paul Rodriguez. Image: Bob Solly

Take him on they did and, for 12 months, Davie - as he was still known - became the singer and sax-player with the band as they made a name for themselves on the club circuit across Kent and London.

The Royal Star Hotel (now converted to the Royal Star Shopping Arcade) had long been established as the premier music venue in Maidstone.

It had three ballrooms: The King's Hall, The Queen's Hall and The Prince's Hall.

On one occasion, the hotel had The Kingfishers playing in The King's Hall, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen in The Queen's and the Manish Boys in the Prince's Hall, all on the same night.

The Manish Boys also played at the Astor Theatre in Deal; Wye College, near Ashford; and the Pembroke Club, the Medway County Youth Club and the Invicta Ballroom all in Chatham and even at Sellindge Village Hall.

Hair length was to prove controversial for the band and here Johnny Flux threatens to give (from left) Woolf Byrne, Davie Jones and John Watson a haircut with some shears in Maidstone's Brenchley Gardens: Image from the Kent Messenger August 28, 1964

The band's claim to fame arose when they were hired as the support act for a six-venue tour of England on a bill that included Gerry and the Pacemakers, Gene Pitney, The Kinks, Marianne Faithful and Bobby Shafto.

Bowie was with the band for 12 months during which time they released a single - I Pity The Fool - with a flip side written by Bowie.

Publicity shots for the release were taken in Maidstone's Mote Park.

The band - and Bowie - won more notoriety when they were booked to appear on the BBC 2 show Gadzooks! It's All Happening.

The producer said they could only appear if they got their hair cut, whereby 18-year-old Bowie retorted: "I would rather die!"

A selection of press cuttings from the 1960s about the boys' hair, collected by the band's drummer Mike Whitehead

The incident was reported in the fan magazines and even some nationals, who insisted as spelling his name as Davy Jones.

Bowie was particularly proud of his long blond locks at the time.

One fellow band member Mike Whitehead, then living in Gillingham, later recalled: "Bowie's appearance was certainly different in those days making him stand out in a crowd.

"But there was such an outcry from the fans that the producer relented and we appeared on the show, live, playing our record Take My Tip (written by Bowie)."

Bob Solly recalled: "I remember David called at my house once with his hair tied up in pink ribbons."

A newly released image of David Bowie taken in 1995: Copyright Zebra One Gallery

"I said 'My God, David, have you come all the way from Bromley looking like that?'

"He shrugged and said 'Yeah'.

"So I said, 'Did people stare at you'?

"Then he gave this great, big smile and said 'Oh, yes!.'"

Despite Maidstone providing Bowie his first brush with fame, he was not enamoured with the town.

The Royal Star Hotel in King Street, Maidstone, hosted many famous names in the 50s and 60s

He later described how he had once been beaten up on its streets - probably because of his long hair - though other band members later said he never mentioned it at the time.

Interviewed in 2003, Bowie said: "It was just this big Herbert walking down the street.

"He just knocked me down on the pavement and when I fell down, he proceeded to kick me for no reason that I can fathom to this day.

"I haven't got many good memories of Maidstone."

He added: "It was just survival. The band was so huge, it was dreadful."

Topper Headon, former drummer with The Clash at the unveiling of the blue plaque to David Bowie in the Royal Star Arcade

That has not stopped the town from loving him, however.

And in June 2017, a blue plaque was unveiled in the Royal Star Shopping Arcade, close to where he had played with the Manish Boys, by Nick “Topper” Headon, drummer with The Clash.

Bob Solly was present at the opening

He said: "David was an affable type of bloke.

"He'd come down from Bromley and stay with one of us for a week to rehearse and write songs."

Bob Solly pictured at the unveiling of Bowie's plaque in June, 2017

"He was very ambitious and gave the impression he was always going to be a solo musician.

"Every time he came down he had a new song in his head. He couldn't write them down because he couldn't read music, so we'd do it for him.

"For me, our band wasn't about fame and fortune, it was about impressing girls, which we were quite good at, especially David."

Mr Solly said: “We all knew he would make it big some day, because he had the charisma as well as talent.”

If Bowie wasn't a huge fan of Maidstone, not everyone in the town was a big fan of his either.

David Bowie pictured in 1967

Today Cynthia Robertson is one of Maidstone council’s longest serving borough councillors, but as 16-year-old Cynthia Porter she had been a big follower of the Maidstone music scene.

She once told KentOnline how having been a fan of the Manish Boys she switched allegiance to the Pejay Sound System, because she wasn’t too keen on their new singer.

She said: “I didn’t think he had such a great voice. He also seemed a bit unconventional. He didn’t seem to quite fit in with the others.”

After a year, the band split up - allegedly because the van they used to go tour in broke down and nobody could afford to replace it.

Bowie then joined another Kent band - Margate-based Lower Third.

An advert for The Witch Doctor club in Marine Court, St Leonards, where Davy Jones and the Lower Third played on July 17, 1965

The group thought they were auditioning for a singer and equal member, but once they had hired Bowie, his new manager, Ralph Horton, issued a press release advising the industry: “This is to inform you of the existence of Davy (sic) Jones and the Lower Third.”

Horton, a former tour manager for the Moody Blues, also decided the band should adopt fashionable Mod attire, in emulation of The Who.

The new style suited Bowie's flamboyant, even effeminate style, the other band members less so.

They did gigs at the Grand Hotel in Littlestone with Bowie as singer and saxophonist, Neil Anderson as backing vocalist, guitarist Denis Taylor, bassist Graham Rivens and drummer Les Mighall.

They also played several times at the Working Men's Club in Minster and at the Conservative Club in Sheerness before moving on to play at London’s 100 and Marquee Clubs.

Bowie's first record as David Bowie, released in 1966

The group released a single as Davy Jones and the Lower Third with a song written by Bowie called You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving, but it failed to chart.

Bowie then decided on another name change and on September 16, 1965, he became David Bowie to avoid confusion with a then rapidly rising star, Davy Jones of the Monkees.

A second single, Can't Help Thinking About Me was released in January 1966 by "David Bowie with the Lower Third" and was similarly unsuccessful.

Bowie left the group a month later.

This time he advertised in Melody Maker for musicians to join his band, making it clear they were "to accompany the singer."

Later David Bowie had no qualms about cutting his hair to appear in the 1983 movie Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Image: The Moviestore Collection Ltd

His new band, called The Buzz, was based in London and is thought to have made only one trip to Kent. They played the Coronation Ballroom in Ramsgate, on August 26, 1966.

After sacking Horton for another manager, Ken Pitt, an album was eventually released in June 1967 by Decca entitled simply David Bowie.

In 1969, during one of his many changes in musical direction, Bowie started a folk club at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham, Kent.

This evolved into the Beckenham Arts Lab, and gave breaks to a number of future stars, including Peter Frampton, Steve Harley and Rick Wakeman, but as well as music it included art shows and poetry recitals.

Commercial success for Bowie came finally in July of that year with the release of Space Oddity. Neatly timed to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, it was a top five UK hit.

A promotional poster from 1966 for David Bowie and The Buzz

But Bowie was always unpredictable and his own man.

In October 1969, he was booked to play a Halloween gig at the now demolished General Gordon pub in Cedar Avenue, Gravesend. He had just appeared on Top of The Pops.

But the artist gave the audience only one rendition of Space Oddity and then dragged a stool on stage and began to read poems.

Dave Stableford was in the audience having paid eight shillings and six-pence admission (about 42p).

He said: “The gig lasted about 15 minutes, as I recall. Unfortunately, the poetry didn’t go down well and he was booed off stage."

An image of David Bowie, newly released by Zebra One Gallery

It took until June 1972 and Bowie's rebirth as Ziggy Stardust for his genius to be finally recognised.

After that, the story, as they say, is history.

Bowie would have been 74 on Friday just gone, January 8.

To mark the day, Zebra One Gallery has released three unseen images of Bowie taken by the celebrated photographer Kate Garner.

Ms Garner took the shots in Los Angeles in 1995 and they are the only Bowie images she has left, after her entire photographic collection was stolen from storage in LA, 12 years ago.

So nearly lost - this image of Bowie by Kate Garner from 1995. Copyright Zebra One Gallery

Fortunately, a friend had rescued these prints by keeping a handful of negatives in his London studio.

Ms Garner said of Bowie: "I was never a crazy Bowie fan, preferring the rough edges of Iggy to David's personas, but after spending an afternoon with this magician, I found him to be one of the most amazing humans I have ever met.

"I'm sad he left Planet Earth so soon. I miss his presence.”

Zebra One Gallery owner and curator, Gabrielle Du Plooy said: “We’re so excited to be able to share this amazing piece of history."

For further information, click here.

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Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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