Continuing with the Slade theme, in 2013 Omnibus Press published Look What I Dun – My Life In Slade by Don Powell and Lise Lyng Falkenberg, and in the first of two extracts we find The ’N Betweens, the group that would become Slade, shuffling their personnel with the arrival of Noddy Holder and Jim Lea. All this is a bit shady as other musicians will soon find themselves out of a job, but the first rehearsal with the crucial four leaves no one in any doubt they were on to something.
By the end of 1965, Don found himself in a tricky spot. Being in a locally successful band but wanting to change both the music and the line-up that had made its success was not an easy manoeuvre. The next few months were filled with secrecy and double-dealings and eventually it would cause some hurt feelings.
“It was all a bit underhanded,” Don admits, “because Dave and myself wanted a four-piece band like The Beatles. It looked great on stage. I remember at one point we talked about getting Robert Plant as our singer. Looking back it was a bit strange, because we had already worked with Jimmy Page when we recorded for Barclay Records, so we kind of had a connection to half of what was to become Led Zeppelin. But we thought, if we got Robert Plant we also had to get another guitarist and we didn’t want that. We wanted the four-piece band.
“At that point Robert Plant was in a band called Listen and later in Band of Joy. Noddy’s old band had been playing with Robert Plant and when Nod was not working, he used to roadie for them in his dad’s window-cleaning van, as his dad was a window cleaner.
“Noddy wasn’t a lead singer back then, he was a guitarist, and as Dave [Hill] and I also had the idea of forming a band with two lead guitarists, like the Allman Brothers, I said to Dave, ‘Do you remember that guy, you know, Noddy Holder? I wonder what he’s doing now?’
“Noddy was a great frontman. He was even then. Steve Brett was the main singer of their band, but Nod used to sing maybe one or two songs before the start of their show to warm up things. He didn’t have that loud a voice back then. It came later, but he had impressed me because he reminded me of John Lennon in the way he talked and the way he sang. Before he joined The Mavericks, I’d also seen him with The Rockin’ Phantoms at St. Giles’ and I had already noticed him then. The Rockin’ Phantoms were very good, especially Nod, but I remember Johnny [Howells, singer in the band], Mick [Marson, guitarist] and me being a bit jealous, as they were stealing some of our glory. When I suggested Nod to Dave, he thought it was a joke, though, because Noddy was now in this cabaret act.”
The pieces fell into place when Don and Dave bumped into Noddy in Wolverhampton and went for a coffee at Beattie’s Coffee Bar. Here they learnt that Noddy had left Steve Brett & The Mavericks, so they promptly offered him a job with Don and Dave’s new band. Noddy thought over the job offer, then accepted it.
There was also a vacancy for a bass player to replace the departing Cass Jones. Maurice Jones placed an advert in the local newspaper, the Express & Star, and many prospective bassists turned up to audition. “When Dave Cass Jones said he was leaving, I helped arrange the auditions for his replacement,” Carole Williams [fan club organiser] remembers, “and I think almost every bass player in the area wanted to try out! The auditions were held in The Blue Flame, a club run by Astra, and this school kid turned up. He was wearing a long scarf and looked really young. But the guys were in no doubt he was the one. Enter Jimmy Lea.”
James Whild Lea was a musically gifted child who had played the violin since the age of nine and been the youngest member of the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra for a number of years. He liked rock as well as classical music and at the age of 14 became the bass player of a school band called Nick & The Axemen. “The first time I met Don was at The ’N Betweens’ audition for a bass player,” Jim recalls. “I was extremely nervous while I was playing, but when Dave broke a string we paused for a few minutes. Don called me over and cracked a couple of jokes, which immediately put me at ease.”
“Typically wry, Don enquired of Jim if he played anything else other than bass, keyboard and violin,” adds Keith Altham, then a rock journalist with New Musical Express. “‘I used to play the cello a bit,’ said an unsuspecting Jim. ‘What went wrong?’ asked Don. ‘Did the spike keep getting stuck in your neck?’ Don’s infamous dry wit broke the ice and Jim joined the group as a result.”
“We didn’t know Jim before the audition at The Blue Flame club,” Don says. “He showed up with his bass in a polythene bag and we picked him because he was a great bass player. He could play so fast, and the rest of the guys at the audition were crap. Some of these people, how could they think that they could play? Jim struck me straight away as being the one for the job, but Astra didn’t really want him. He was just a school kid and they probably found him too young to fit in with the image of The ’N Betweens. But we didn’t want him in The ’N Betweens, we wanted him in a new band with Noddy as the frontman, although Jim didn’t know that. He though he was to join the original band.
“When we came over to Jim’s house in Codsall to ask him to join, we told him that the idea was to get members for a four-piece band. Jim was very disillusioned about that, because he used to be a big fan of the old band. He really liked Johnny Howells and the blues and, just like Dave, he thought that Nod was a joke. But he accepted and we went for a tryout with the new line-up straight away.”
The first rehearsal with the new four-piece band took place at the Three Men In A Boat, a pub near Noddy’s home on the Beechdale Estate in Walsall. “It was done in secret,” Don says, “as Johnny and Mick didn’t know. Dave and myself got our equipment together in the van. Dave was the only driver at that time, so he used to drive. We picked Jim up and went down for Noddy and then on to Three Men In A Boat, where we’d played a lot of times with The ’N Betweens. We knew the guy who ran the pub and he said we could rehearse there that afternoon. So we had a secret rehearsal just to see if it would work.
“For the first song we had to think of something that Nod’s band played and that our band played and this way the first song we ever played together was ‘Mr. Pitiful’ by Otis Redding. And it worked! Straight away it worked! We were all like young kids, laughing and giggling because it was working. Then we just leapt into other things, like soul and some Tamla Motown, and that worked as well. It was fantastic.”