In the late 1950s and early 1960s the UK music industry would undergo dramatic change as the era of big bands gave way to the rock bands we still know and love today.
Influenced by American jazz, R&B (rhythm and blues) and rock’n’roll, amplified music for guitar, drums and keyboard would evolve and produce internationally acclaimed bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – and with us Animals. Two longtime friends from Newcastle’s West End – Ken Brady and Andy McMullen – were to become part of this revolution as teenagers when they formed their own band, The Gamblers.
Without reaching the dizzying heights of fame and fortune, the group would become a much-vaunted R&B unit and then, later, a versatile and polished variety group. Sadly, earlier in the year we lost Andy Mac and more recently Ken passed away as well. Their passing allows us to reflect on the band’s road to success during the Swinging ’60s era.
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With little or no money available, their early taste for jazz-oriented music gave way to a more basic, improvisational form of popular music known as skiffle. Lonnie Donegan was ‘king of the skiffle’ and, as well as trying to emulate their hero, the children at Newcastle City Estate took their name from one of his hits. The man of the game.
The Gamblers would transition to rock ‘n’ roll before becoming a close-knit six-member R&B group. The new additions would all be Geordies. In addition to Andy Mac on drums and Ken Brady on vocals and sax, Jim Crawford, lead guitar; Alan George, keyboards; Alan Sanderson, bass guitar; and Tony Damon, vocals, guitar and trumpet. Honing their musical talents in front of tough audiences in local working-class clubs would have its reward when the band landed a two-year residency at Newcastle’s Majestic Ballroom on Westgate Road in 1961.
Success at the ‘Maj’ and engagements on the UK’s thriving club and ballroom scene persuaded the boys to aim for the big time. Versatile, hardworking and reliable, the band would embark on the first of a series of tours that took them to Germany and France. led to numerous television appearances.
Billy Fury was an early 1960s rock and roller who, with his good looks and output of hit records, was known as Britain’s ‘Blond Elvis’. Under impresario Larry Parnes, Fury would be projected more as a balladeer and all-rounder. artist.
Aware of the Gamblers’ musical prowess and clean living image, Parnes would broker a deal in 1964 for them to become Fury’s backing band. It turned out to be a good fit as Billy Fury and the Gamblers enjoyed success together, with lucrative deals that led to television appearances, summer season shows, a pantomime, and even a movie. I have a horse.
All good things come to an end. Fury’s illness and seven years on the road would eventually lead to the Gamblers calling it a day in 1967. Andy Mac and Ken Brady would return to Tyneside and resume their lives on the civilian streets. Their friendship would continue over the following decades, as they met regularly and drank a pint at the Labor Club in Newcastle.
Without regret? Ken would be asked this question over and over. The answer was always the same and given with a wry smile: “Man, after five years as a pit miner, forming a band and hitting the road was never a gamble.”