The blues-rock band Vinegar Joe was formed in 1971. They took their name from the nickname of the caustic US General Joseph Stilwell. The band recorded three albums for Island Records; Vinegar Joe (1972), Rock n Roll Gypsies (1972), and Six Star General (1973).
At various times three of the band lived in West Hampstead: Robert Palmer, Steve York and Pete Gage. Many musicians lived in West Hampstead before the neighbourhood was ‘gentrified’ and the supply of cheap rented accommodation dried up.
Pete Gage, guitarist, composer and producer, is the link in the formation of the bands that led up to Vinegar Joe. He was born in Lewisham in 1947 and married Pauline Newman in 1966. Pete worked in several London bands before forming the Ram Jam Band in 1964 using a number of different singers. He met Geno Washington who was with the US Air Force and asked him to be the singer with his band. Pete said his mother paid to get Geno demobbed, and the band became Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band in April 1965. They played in blues clubs across the country, including 16 times at West Hampstead’s Klooks Kleek, and had two best-selling live albums in 1965 and 1966. In January 1967 Pete’s wife tragically died in a car crash on the M1 when they were returning from the Twisted Wheel in Manchester.
The band broke up in late 1969. For more details about the band see Nick Warburton’s excellent article on his website:
Kevin Rowland and Dexy’s Midnight Runners big 1980 hit ‘Geno’ was based on hearing the band at gigs where the fans shouted ‘Geno! Geno! Geno!’
In 1983 Geno Washington co-owned a basement restaurant at 212 West End Lane in West Hampstead. Most nights about 10.30, he would arrive and sing blues songs such as ‘Little Red Rooster’ and ‘Got My Mojo Working’ to the diners.
In 1970 Pete Gage formed Dada, a short lived 12-piece jazz-fusion band, with three vocalists, Elkie Brooks, (whom Pete married in 1971), Jimmy Chambers, and initially Paul Korda who was replaced by Robert Palmer. The band was Stax-influenced with a horn section, and were signed by Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records. They released one album called Dada (1970).
Steve York takes up the story:
‘I joined Dada shortly before their US tour. When we returned to London Ahmet Ertegun flew out to see us play at Ronnie Scott’s. Shortly after Pete Gage, Elkie, Robert, and I were summoned to a meeting with Ahmet and Chris Blackwell (head of Island Records), at the Park Lane Hilton. They wanted to reduce the size of the band and become more rock oriented, and we became Vinegar Joe in late 1971'.
‘Ahmet asked us to find a new drummer & keyboard player and told us that he wanted the band on Atlantic Records for the US, and Chris would have the band on Island for the rest of the world’.
‘We recorded the first album with Dave Thompson and Tim Hinkley on keyboards, and Conrad Isidore and Rob Tait, drums, playing on a session basis. The final line up of the band was Robert, Elkie, Pete, Steve, with Pete Gavin drums and Mike Deacon keys. Guitarist Jim Mullen joined the band for their second album “Rock & Roll Gypsies” and for their US tour’.
Here they are performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973:
They were an incredible live band who performed on the club and university circuit. However, Pete did not think their albums were well produced and they did not sell very well.
Vinegar Joe broke up in March 1974. Chris Blackwell wanted Robert as a solo act for Island. The band recorded a single featuring Elkie (without Robert) of ‘Sweet Nothin’s’ and ‘Rescue Me’. This was briefly released by Island but withdrawn immediately by Chris Blackwell. You can hear it here:
‘Elkie remained under contract to Island but was unable to record for about two years. She subsequently signed with A&M records. Her first album for A&M was recorded in LA and flopped, but her second album was recorded in London with veteran producers/songwriters Leiber & Stoller and yielded the hits ‘Pearl’s A Singer’ and ‘Sunshine after the Rain’. I played bass on the record.’
Pete Gage was very angry about how badly he was ripped off and treated by the music industry. After his divorce from Elkie, he lived briefly in Compayne Gardens in the 1980s (he can’t remember the address). Pete married the singer Ruby James and they emigrated to Sydney Australia in 1999, where he lives today.
(There is another Pete Gage, not to be confused with the above, who sang with the Jet Harris Band and with Dr Feelgood after Lee Brilleaux’s death in 1994).
Singer Robert Palmer was born in January 1949 in Batley West Yorkshire. He grew up in Malta where his father worked as a civilian for the Royal Navy as a code breaker during the Cold War. Robert went to Scarborough High School for Boys, and age 15 he joined a band called the Mandrakes. In 1969 Pete Gage recommended Robert to Alan Bown, and he came to London to replace vocalist Jess Roden in the Alan Bown Set. Pete Gage persuaded Robert to join Dada when they had a US tour lined up.
Robert lived in the basement flat of 35 Dennington Park Road West Hampstead from about 1970. Pete Gage told Dick Weindling that he remembers writing the songs ‘See the World’ and ‘Never Met a Dog’ from the first Vinegar Joe album, sitting cross-legged on the floor of Robert’s flat.
Robert married designer Sue Thatcher in 1970, after a chance meeting on Slough Station in 1968. In later interview he said: ‘I was taken by her style. Silver boots and silver mini-dress. The Sixties, y’know? She was reading a science fiction book, and I’m a sci-fi fan.’
They had a son James, and a daughter called Jane. He left the Dennington Park Road flat after it was flooded, destroying most of his belongings.
(Dick: This seems to be before the notorious August 1975 flood in West Hampstead).
Robert and Sue moved to Greenwich Village in New York where he became friends with members of the band Talking Heads. About 1976 Robert relocated to Nassau in the Bahamas just across the street from Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios. Robert left the States for Lugano in Switzerland in 1987, and he and Sue were divorced in 1993.
His first solo album, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley (1974), was recorded in New York with members of Stuff, Cornell Dupree and Bernard Purdie, and at Sea-Saint Studio in New Orleans with Lowell George, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville and other members of the Meters. Robert Palmer had a successful career and a number of major hits. In the 1980s he was in the Power Station, with Andy Taylor and John Taylor of Duran Duran and Tony Thompson of Chic.
His iconic music videos for ‘Addicted to Love’ (1985) and ‘Simply Irresistible’ (1988) featured identically dressed women with pale faces, dark eye makeup and bright red lipstick. The videos were directed by photographer Terence Donovan. There is another West Hampstead link here as Donovan had lived in a flat in Douglas Mansions (now called Douglas Court), on the corner of West End Lane and Quex Road in the 1960s.
Robert’s last album was Drive (2003) which was very blues based. In September 2003 he had just recorded a programme for Yorkshire Television called ‘My Kinda of People’, which looked at the musicians who had influenced him. He was taking a short break in Paris with his American partner Mary Ambrose before they returned to Switzerland, when he suddenly died of a heart attack in the Warwick Hotel.
Bass and harmonica player, Steve York was born in London in 1948. His father was a Chief Petty Officer, and Steve first lived on the Gosport Naval Base before moving to Temple Fortune in North London. The West Hampstead connection is that Steve lived above a shop at 55 Mill Lane West Hampstead from 1972 to 1977.
Steve has had a long career playing with many well-known musicians and recording numerous records. Beginning with blues bands in the 60s including Graham Bond and Manfred Mann, in 1971 he joined Pete Gage in Dada and then Vinegar Joe.
Steve told me:
‘The first Vinegar Joe album was released about nine months after we recorded it. In the meantime I toured the US with the American band Climax who had a huge hit with the song “Precious & Few”. I moved to Mill Lane a few months after returning to the UK and rejoined Vinegar Joe. I let Graham Bond stay in my flat in Mill Lane while I was on tour with VJ in 1973. He was homeless after his marriage broke up.’
Steve has recorded with Marianne Faithful on her albums Broken English and Dangerous Acquaintances, also with Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Chicken Shack, Elkie Brooks, Joan Armatrading, Dr John, Chuck Berry and many others.
He played harmonica, or as he wonderfully calls it ‘the tin sandwich’, on Robert Palmer’s albums, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, and Pressure Drop.
The list of the numerous bands Steve has played with can be found here:
Today Steve lives in Mexico. See his website for more details:
With special thanks to Steve York and Pete Gage for their help with this article.