Back in the late 1990s, Neil Henderson and Paul Welsby carried out an interview with Twisted Wheel DJ Roger Eagle. It proved to be his last.
Before we get to the interview proper, some background, courtesy of one of the people behind the interview for the much-loved Mod fanzine The New Breed, Neil Henderson:
I first became aware of Roger Eagle as a teenager in the mid-1980s. Even then his name was often mentioned in hushed tones, a man who held legendary status and came with equally legendary stories to match.
Back then Roger, had a regular DJ spot at the now infamous, and much missed, International Club in Manchester and was responsible for booking the kind of acts, including Curtis Mayfield and Bo Diddley, that a young lad like me had been dreaming of.
Fast forward about 20 years and a mate thrust a flyer in my hand one night advertising that he was guesting alongside Roger at a soul night in Manchester. Billed as an ‘RnB Special’. Me and a couple of my pals went along to witness Roger in action.
The night was a revelation and Roger’s blinding set of raw blues 45s was the catalyst that spurred the three of us (Paul Welsby, Mike Warburton and myself) to form the Hideaway Club. A night that started out as a bit of fun and eventually ran for 16 years.
The onslaught of cancer prevented Roger from ever making it to the club to DJ but from the first night, and often afterwards, he would phone the venue to see how the night was going and offering advice on records that might be played, such was his love for the music.
Despite his illness, Roger, did, however, agree to be interviewed for The New Breed, an occasional magazine, me and Paul also produced. Little could we ever have envisaged when we set off on our way to North Wales on a rainy Sunday afternoon to interview Roger that our interview was to be his last.
Given the sheer wealth of stuff Roger had been involved in, from the early days of the Brazennose Street Twisted Wheel to the punk days of Eric’s in Liverpool, we had agreed three visits to his home to get all of his memories on record.
Sadly that was never achieved as Roger passed away just a short time after our initial visit. This is Roger’s last formal interview and his final words that have since been used in newspapers, books and magazine articles.
They come from a day spent with Roger that, despite his illness, stretched to a one hour interview across a whole afternoon as he regularly broke off to have us rummage through the countless stacks of obscure 45s to play us a new sound.
That was Roger all over, a true music enthusiast to the end.
So onto the interview…
On 4th May 1999, legendary soul and R&B DJ Roger Eagle passed away after a long period of illness. Roger earned the ‘legendary’ tag by being the first DJ at Manchester’s original Mod, soul and R&B club The Twisted Wheel back in 1963, which rivalled London’s Scene Club as THE place for the in-crowd to be seen.
Roger later found fame running Eric’s club in Liverpool in the days of the city’s post-punk explosion, and later helped numerous Manchester musicians on their way (Mick Hucknall being but one). Over the years he developed a more eclectic taste in music but Roger never lost enthusiasm for his first love, Black American music from the 50s and 60s.
The New Breed carried out this interview at Roger’s home in North Wales in February 1999 and because of his poor health, decided to conduct the interview in stages over a period of time. This is a complete transcript of the first interview because sadly we didn’t make a second as Roger’s health progressively worsened over the months. This is Roger Eagle’s last interview. At the time we never expected it to be a tribute.
When and how did you first become interested in Soul and R&B music?
Well, I was originally a Rock’n’Roll kid until I heard Ray Charles. The ‘In Person’ and ‘Live At Newport’ LPs from around 1958/59 really converted me. Rock’n’Roll died in 1958. Ray Charles was the first to see the possibilities of mixing different types of music. He mixed R&B, Rock’n’Roll and even country. There were other acts at the time that were a great influence. Fats Domino, a lot of the R&B releases on London Records. Gary US Bond’s ‘New Orleans’. Arthur Alexander. LaVern Baker. Chuck Willis’ ‘The Sultan of Stroll’ that was a very, very important LP. I love Chuck Willis.
How did you pursue your interest in this (at the time) very obscure music?
There were various coffee bars in Manchester, like The Cona Coffee Bar (in Tib Lane near Albert Square) where you could take in your own records to play. You would take your own in and also listen to other people’s and pick it up from there. There were a few like-minded people around and you would bump into them or meet them in places like The Town Hall pub.
As for getting hold of the records, you could get hold of some but it wasn’t long before I was importing records directly from the States. I must thank two guys – Roger Fairhurst and Mike Bocock – who taught me how to import records from the States. I was getting hold of records from the US even before they had been released there! Tracks like ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ by Sam and Dave. I was the first person to play that record in Britain. It even got to such a stage that I was involved in writing sleeve notes on a Bobby Bland LP for Duke Records in the US.
How did you first become involved with the Twisted Wheel?
Before I got the job at The Twisted Wheel, my only DJ experience was taping tracks on one of these reel-to-reel recorders and taking them along to parties to play. One day I received a parcel from the US that contained all of the Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley back catalogue LPs. I took them down to The Left Wing Coffee Bar, just to have a look at them. I was approached by the Abadi Brothers who said ‘we’re buying this place and turning into a night club – do you know anything about R&B?’ so I said ‘Yes’ and they offered me the DJ job there and then.
To be honest, the Abadis didn’t really have an appreciation for the type of music that was popular at the club. They just saw it as a way to get the numbers coming through the door. Only once did they insist that I played a pop record. I argued against it but to prove a point I played it and emptied the dance floor. After that, they never interfered again on the music side.
I wasn’t a particularly high profile DJ. I didn’t have the ambition and I certainly didn’t have the patter. I was happy playing the music that I loved. I would play six or seven hours solid singlehandedly – with just an hour or so’s break for the band – for £3 a night. I was happily playing the music that I loved but with hindsight, I would have appreciated a little more money.
Seven hours of record playing is a long time and there weren’t that many Soul and R&B records available at the time so I had to mix in Rock’n’Roll tracks to fill out the time. In fact, Carl Perkins was a particular favourite amongst The Wheel crowd. He even played live at the club. In the very early days, when the club first started, we relied very much on word of mouth recommendations. We had the likes of Roger and Mike and their mates from Bolton, we had people coming over from Liverpool and all over the place. I guess it was the start of the whole scene where people are willing to travel to hear the music that they want to hear.
The Wheel was a big scene in the North West, how much did you know about what was happening in other parts of the country?
The only other club anywhere that was playing anything like what I was playing at The Wheel was The Scene Club in London. I used to get on well with Guy Stevens and we used to exchange records. Like I said, I was getting hold of some records before their release even in the States, things like Stax and so on. We weren’t consciously trying to create a movement or anything like that. We just liked to have a club that played the right kind of music.
Obviously the music that you played and crowds that you attracted were very much part of Mod culture. Did you class yourself as a Mod? Did that side of things appeal to you?
No, not really. You could say that I tipped my hat towards the things that were happening. But it was the music that came first and was paramount above everything else to me. Of course, I dressed in the styles of the day. I was smart but I wasn’t at the sharp end style-wise. My money went on vinyl and importing new records. I left the clothes obsession to the kids coming to the club.
Did you set out to make The Wheel a Mod club?
No, as I said before, it just grew and happened. You knew what was going on though. The punters were generally sharp but some were way ahead. I couldn’t keep up with them! I got respect through the records that I was playing. That to me was enough.
Although many people often forget it, The Wheel did have a bit of a reputation for the quality of live acts that played there, many of which were white kids influenced by the kind of music that you were playing.
Yes, we had the lot. I used to be friendly with Stevie Winwood. He would come round to my place and listen to records when The Spencer Davis Group played the club. Georgie Fame did some good things – very King Pleasure influenced. The important thing is to take the influence and then add a twist and take it on further.
It’s important to remember that there is a big big difference between Club Groups and Pop Groups. Eric Clapton was a good friend at that time. I remember one Sunday morning after he had played at the club, he brought a good-looking young Mod girl round to my place and she got completely pissed off because all he wanted to do was listen to Freddy King records.
In 1965, the ‘original’ Twisted Wheel in Brazennose Street closed down and a ‘second’ Wheel opened in Whitworth Street. Legend has it that the original crowd didn’t move on to the new club. Is that true?
No, that’s not true. The music policy at the new club was just the same. I moved over with the club, I spent roughly two years at the first Wheel and a year at the second, roughly.
During 1966, you left The Wheel. Why?
Well, I left because they wouldn’t pay me a decent wage. After three years hard graft for maybe £3 a night I asked for a fiver and they said they couldn’t afford it. I was also getting bored with the music and there were a lot of pills going on.
Kids were in trouble with the pills and all they wanted was that kind of fast tempo soul dance. So, I was very restricted with what I could play and I thought ‘I’m not getting paid enough money to do this – I ain’t going to do it no more’. So I left and immediately got paid a decent wage by Debbie Fogel at The Blue Note Club. I got a fiver a night for four nights, besides doing other things.
I was able to play the kind of music that I liked. The range of music. Whereas the pill freaks only wanted the same dance beat – which is what makes it so boring. It’s okay you know there were some decent sounds but they made it so boring. You’re trying to talk to kids who are off their heads all night on pills and its really hard. And the Abadis didn’t want to pay me what I felt I was worth.
So you just completely disassociated from them?
Gone. Yeah. I was a black music fanatic and I had respect for what I was dealing with – I don’t think they did.
And then you started the Staxx club. Was that after the Blue Note?
Yeah, briefly. It was at The Three Coins in Fountain Street. The music policy was similar. It was R’n’B and Soul. But you see I was trying to play funk. Early funk. In fact, ‘Funky Broadway’ by Dyke & The Blazers was probably the last record I played at The Wheel. It was just starting to change and they didn’t want it. They didn’t want it to change. It just split. I was progressing to funk, very early funk but they didn’t want to go with it.
So when you started the Staxx Club, presumably you were pulling in a different audience to the one that you had had at The Wheel?
I don’t know really. They were just people around town. Pill freaks that just popped in and out. You can’t look at it with hindsight, at the time it wasn’t ‘oh we’re going to start a movement!’. It was just the place to be. It was the place for The In Crowd…for a while.
And then you moved completely at a tangent to the Magic Village Club?
I just started getting into rock. It was a completely different track. Things like Captain Beefheart, John Mayall, The Nice and so on.
That’s just about taken us through your ‘Soul Years’ but there’s just one last question. It’s about a story that’s become almost an urban myth – and we wondered whether you could clear it up once and for all. It’s about the time that The Rolling Stones came down to The Wheel after playing a gig in Manchester…
Yeah. I’ll tell you exactly what happened. The Stones came down to the club and they were standing in the coffee bar having a cup of coffee. The kids were standing round them – just looking at them. Not talking to them – just looking.
And I played all of the original tracks off their first album, which had just come out….’I’m A King Bee’ by Slim Harpo, ‘Walkin’ The Dog’ by Rufus Thomas, Arthur Alexander… They knew exactly what I was doing… I played them in exactly the same order as the LP.
It was just me saying..there’s a North/South thing. I’m a Southerner by birth – but a Northerner by emotion. I prefer the North. I’m not saying I don’t like Southerners, but they tend to be so temporary down there. To me if something’s solid then its worth looking after. Whereas they’re into it and out of it. Which is really not the Northern style.
I actually got on OK with The Stones. Brian Jones bought a copy of R&B Scene (Roger’s own magazine from the early/mid-60s) from me when I was in London. Mick Jagger once ‘bummed a cig’ off me. That sums up The Stones for me.
But joking aside, I’m one of the DJ’s that publicised the music, but when The Stones went to The States they got Howlin’ Wolf onto primetime national televison. F***ing Hell. That’s the thing to do. I admire them for doing that.
I’d be playing tunes in the club and those guys would be listening. You know Rod Stewart and those guys. Pete Stringfellow used to come over and write down the name of every tune that I played. I didn’t really know what was going on. I wasn’t sharp enough business-wise to realise what I had going. I’m not bitter about it because I am absolutely totally committed to the music. It means so much to me.
I recently met this black American guy who came over to see me. He’s at University in The States and he’s doing a thesis on Northern British Appreciation of Black American Music. He’d been to see everybody on the Northern Scene…all the Northern DJs and so on they all said ‘go and see Roger Eagle – he started it all’.
Eventually, he turned up here with a camera and I blew his head off completely. I started playing him tunes…he went away with a cassette – with what you would probably think are fairly obvious tunes on it. His mind was completely wrecked. This guy’s in his 40s, maybe 50s and he’s a serious man ….and he’s never heard Ray Charles!
I said, if you want to talk about Northern Soul there’s plenty of people better placed than I am to tell you …but if you want the history about white Northern English appreciation of Black American music you talk to me! I’ll straighten it out for you. I did.
I said: this is where it started in the 50s. When it was exciting. I don’t want to know about white artists ripping off black artists …that’s b***ocks. Everybody covered everyone else! Nat King Cole – one of the most successful black entertainers of all time – he would cover white show tunes, pop tunes, blues tunes – across all boundaries. He didn’t care.
Ray Charles was one of the first black artists to see the possibilities. I said to this guy ‘have you ever heard ‘I’m Moving On’ by Ray Charles? As far as I know it’s one of the first cases of a black artist covering a Country & Western song – a Hank Snow tune’. I had to put it on tape…he’d never heard it. I love the train rhythm through the track building up towards the end. As far as I’m concerned a tune this strong ought to be played. I bet you’ve heard it so many times without really clocking just how strong a track it is. It’s a head record. Atlantic were starting to experiment with different instrumentation. Moving away from the basic drum, bass, guitar, sax and piano. They put a distorted pedal steel guitar on it. It’s one of my all time favourite records.
Ray Charles is the only artist I’ve never managed to meet. I was at the Free Trade Hall and he walked right past me. His bodyguards – New Yorkers in pork pie hats and shades – said ‘Yeah you can talk to Ray….. in London. Make an appointment son’. I said ‘No I want to talk to him here…..’. It’s a shame. It was about ’63/’64 he had a huge, huge band…..but he’d lost it by then. You know I talk to people about Ray Charles and they immediately think ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’ and they say ‘Ray Charles??’. He was a genius.
Huge thanks to Neil Henderson and Paul Welsby (who spent far too much of his free time sorting through old computer files to do this) for allowing me to re-publish this interview from their New Breed fanzine. It’s much appreciated by me and I hope you too.
I have also got a list of tracks from major acts that Roger used to play at the Twisted Wheel, a list given to Neil and Paul at the time of the interview. look out for those on a Spotify playlist in the coming days.
If you want to know more about Roger Eagle, I would recommend picking up a copy of Sit Down! Listen to This! – the Roger Eagle Story by Bill Sykes.