Over the weekend I posted my Melody Maker reports of Slade’s concert at Earls Court on July 1, 1973, perhaps the greatest night of their career. It is ironic that only a few days days later came Slade’s greatest tragedy, the car crash in which Don Powell’s girlfriend died and Don suffered life-changing injuries.
This second extract from Don’s book Look What I Dun: My Life In Slade deals with the crash and its immediate aftermath, a bit longer than most posts.
In the early hours of July 4, 1973, Don picked up his girlfriend, Angela Morris, from the Dix Nightclub in Wolverhampton, where she worked, the two driving off in Don’s white Bentley. A few minutes later the car left Compton Road, flew through a hedge and smashed up against a tree and a brick wall adjoining a local school. Both Don and Angela were thrown out of the car in a way that made it impossible to tell who had been driving. Angela was killed instantly.
By chance, two nurses passed the accident scene minutes after the crash and helped to save Don’s life. They called the hospital and requested an ambulance.
“There was an ambulance nearby, dealing with a pregnancy,” says Don, “and that’s why, when the nurses called the hospital, they knew the ambulance was in the vicinity. In the ambulance, they dropped the baby and came for me. If it hadn’t been for that, I would have been dead. The nurses were holding my head together, as it was split open. It was a miracle that I survived.
“I don’t remember the crash, but I get flashbacks of being wheeled into hospital on an upright stretcher. My head fell to one side and I didn’t feel like I was lying down, so it must have been an upright stretcher. But after that, I don’t remember anything.”
Don was brought to the Wolverhampton Royal Hospital, where surgeons worked on him for hours. They had to drill into his skull to ease the internal pressure, and many broken bones and deep cuts had to be attended to as well. Afterwards, Don was put on a bed of ice to keep his soaring temperature down. He was more or less in a coma for five days. When he did wake up, he still wasn’t quite conscious at first.
“One time, I panicked,” Don recalls. “I vaguely remember it. I woke up shivering, not realising that I was on a bed of ice. There were tubes everywhere and I just panicked. I didn’t know where I was, or why I was there. I pulled out the tubes and got out of bed, and that was when the nurses came rushing in. They put me back to bed and I asked, ‘What am I doing here?’ and they said I had been in an accident. But it didn’t sink in. It didn’t mean anything to me. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness.
“At one point, a doctor came when I was in bed and he also said, ‘You’ve been in a car accident.’ And it was strange, because I must have still been aware of certain things. I did remember that I was in a band, and my recollection was that we had been coming back from a gig and I thought the rest of the guys were in the same position as me, somewhere in the hospital. I thought we’d all been in a crash, so the rest of the guys must be there somewhere. The next thing when I came round again, they were all sitting at the bottom of the bed in hospital gowns and that freaked me.”
“Don’s accident was horrible,” says his sister Carol. “Just horrible. Mum broke down completely. It was so strange. I’d dreamt about it the night before. I’d dreamt of Don, a very unpleasant dream, and in the dream, I kept reassuring Don that it would be all right. It would be OK. And then I woke up to learn that Don had had his accident.
“And that poor girl died. We didn’t know her, as she and Don had just started dating, but it was awful. My dad went to the hospital and they asked him if Don did drugs. There was nothing of that sort back then, but they had to ask, as they were afraid that he was dying. It was awful. Dad cried.
“News got out very fast. Everybody in the street was talking about it and the fans were literally invading our home. They were all over. I’d married Gerald by then, but they even invaded our house. They were crawling the drains and they ruined my garden. But they sent Don so many nice get-well cards. He had hundreds and hundreds of them.”
“The support from the fans was incredible,” Don agrees, “and the support from the rest of the guys as well, Nod, Jim and Dave.”
After a while, Don didn’t need the tubes and pipes any more, but still, the details of the accident were kept from him.
“I was there for quite a while before anyone told me what had happened,” Don recalls. “When I didn’t have the tubes any more, I got to the toilet. Afterwards, I washed my hands and came to look in the mirror. I had no hair, my face was all smashed, with black eyes and teeth missing and that big crack in the head, held together by clamps. I was so shocked that I fell into the back wall. It was terrible. I thought, somebody has got to tell me what’s going on. I kept asking, ‘Please, tell me what has happened!’
“Dad told me about the accident. Then he said, ‘Your girlfriend has died.’ He didn’t say Angela, so I thought it was [previous girlfriend] Pat, because I didn’t remember Angela, as I’d lost my short-term memory. I only remembered Pat.”
“When Don had his accident, Pat was away,” adds Carol. “She didn’t learn about it until she landed at the airport. It was on all the front pages; she saw it at the airport and broke down completely. She would have wanted to be there for Don.”
“Pat actually came to see me in hospital,” Don explains, “but she was told, ‘You can’t see him yet, because he thinks it is you who has died.’ The press wrote that my fiancée was dead, but I had never been engaged to Angela, as I had only known her for a few months. Pat was the one I had been engaged to, and only gradually did I understand that it was Angela who had died. That freaked me, because I didn’t remember her. It got out in the press and, of course, her parents saw it and that was not very good. When I got out of hospital, I went to see them obviously and explained about my amnesia, that it was the reason why I didn’t remember their daughter.”
Don’s friends and colleagues were all shocked by the accident and the death of his girlfriend. “The phone rang in the early hours of the morning,” Jim recalls, “and I was mortified by the dreadful news for days, until I saw him in the flesh, just to make sure he was still there. A lifelong tragedy for Don, but a mortal tragedy for his lovely girlfriend, Angela.”
“I knew Don’s fiancée, Pat,” Carole Williams says, “but I was not aware that they had split, so the morning I heard about the accident, I really thought it was Pat in the car with him. I had been friends with her younger sister; I used to take her to football matches and had got to know the family. It was only when I rang them that I knew Don was with someone new. I really followed the news to see how he was, as it did not seem right to intrude when we had not seen each other for a while.”
“The first time I heard about the accident, I was at my parents’ house,” Dave says. “The call came early in the morning. My sister Carol answered the phone. It was a neighbour, who said Don had been in an accident, but we didn’t know till later that it was serious. Angela had been killed and Don was in hospital in a serious condition and was not expected to survive. Well, I was in shock, and so was Carol, as Angela was her best friend. It’s hard to explain how I felt. All I can say is, it was a dreadful time. Things had been going so well, we were number one in the charts, we had just done a big show at Earls Court in London, and then suddenly this happens! I was absolutely gutted. All my thoughts went to Don, just hoping he would pull through.”
“Don’s accident was frightening,” echoes [tour manager] Swinn. “The first time I saw him in hospital he was unconscious, tubes everywhere. His head had been shaved. And for a week we didn’t know if it was touch and go.”
“I learnt about it in a very strange way,” says [Slade roadie] Haden Donovan. “I was back working with my brother’s band, because there was a gap between Slade gigs. We were playing a week in a club in Somerset and, when we got to the gig one night, we were told, ‘People have tried to get in touch with you lot all day. Can you phone this number immediately?’ That was how we found out, because we hadn’t seen the newspapers and we hadn’t heard the news on the radio.”
Don’s accident affected many people, making them realise how quickly everything could come to an end. That thought made Dave marry his girlfriend, Janice, while Don was in hospital. They married in Mexico in July 1973.
“The four of us, Dave and Jan and Angela and myself, had planned to go to Los Angeles for a holiday after the English tour,” Don explains. “Dave called my father after the accident and asked if it was all right that he and Jan still went. My dad said, ‘Of course it is. Don wouldn’t want you not to go because he is in hospital. You go.’ And that was when they got married in Mexico.”
“Everybody was so considerate,” Don’s sister Carol states. “They were great with us at the time of the accident. We only had one bad experience. When Don was still at hospital, somebody called us and said she was a nurse. She said we should hurry to hospital because Don was dying. And we got all hysterical. There were only us women in the house, Mum and me and my sister, Marilyn, and when we got to the hospital, we found out that it was just a very nasty prank. That was really unpleasant, somebody doing that.”
“I remember another unpleasant incident,” says Don, “although that came out of thoughtlessness, rather than ill will. I got a lot of mail from fans and friends and I read that in bed in hospital. Then came a letter from Chicago, from Ludwig drums. I was really ill, almost lying on my deathbed, and they had sent me was the details of a funeral service! It turned out that Bill Ludwig I had died, and it was so typically American that they sent out the whole funeral service, with the prayers and the hymns and everything. Only in America! And I thought, ‘What the fuck! I’m on my deathbed and they send me a funeral service!’”
Six weeks after the crash, Don was released from hospital. He went with Jim and his wife, Louise, to Bournemouth for a week, staying at the home of their tour promoter, Mel Bush, before moving home, where his family took care of him.
“The first long time was awful,” Carol says. “Don’s memory was all gone, he couldn’t remember a thing and kept repeating everything. He could tell you the same thing 12 times over, without knowing that he had just told it. It was frustrating. But Don then gave the whole family a trip to Malta, and it was the first time I had travelled outside England. It was so generous of him. He said it was his way of thanking us for taking care of him.”
“I felt so inadequate,” Don admits. “I didn’t know what else to do. Before, I used to have such an impeccable memory, but now! It was horrible. At least I found out that I used to fancy one of the nurses at hospital. I didn’t remember anything about it, but apparently when she came over to tuck me in, I used to grab her and hold her by the bed. So when I went to visit the staff at the intensive care, after I had been released, she just looked at me with squinting eyes and said, ‘You! What are you doing here? Get out!’
“Still, it was awful, as my memory was really, really bad. I didn’t remember a thing about the accident but, as the specialist said to me, ‘What do you want to remember that for? You’ll never remember it. Don’t even try. The brain switches off just before an accident and it switches on again after.’ And he was right. The accident happened near where I used to live, in Wolverhampton, and when I got out of hospital, I had to drive past the wall and the school every day, but it didn’t mean anything to me.”
The question of who had been driving Don’s Bentley on that fateful night remained.
“When Don finally came out of hospital, he remembered nothing,” Andy Scott says. “He didn’t even know who was driving, for all the speculation in the world.”
“Perhaps one of the most spiteful early rumours about Don in Fleet Street concerned his revelation on leaving hospital that he had lost his memory following the horrendous car crash,” Keith Altham adds. “‘Very convenient’, one jaundiced Fleet Street scribe described his condition to me. ‘You just don’t know how severe his injuries were,’ I told him. ‘He nearly died and you do not know the man,’ I added angrily. ‘He could not be more genuine.’”
“It said in the media that it must have been Don driving that night, because Angela never drove the car,” Haden Donovan says. “That was a lie. When Don was in America the first time with Slade, I had to take my brother David in my uncle’s car to Don’s parents to pick up the Bentley and drive it over to Angela’s house. She used to drive it to work. Also, there was talk about a person who saw the car go past on the night of the accident, and he said it was a pretty young girl driving. I think the autopsy said that she had bad bruises from the steering wheel as well.”
Don attended the coroner’s court, although he was not called to give evidence, as he couldn’t remember the accident anyway. Dix’s owner, Richard Brownson, said that he had taken the car keys from Angela and given them to Don, before the couple left the club. On the other hand, a witness had seen Angela climb into the driver’s seat outside Dix’s, but could not swear who was at the wheel when the car drove off. Coroner Walter Forsyth said there was doubtful evidence as to who drove the car and the jury brought in an open verdict.
The nurses who had helped Don at the accident scene hadn’t been called to give evidence, as no one knew who they were, but eventually Don was to find out. “Many years later, I got in touch with one of the nurses who had helped save me,” he says. “There was this guy who was doing an article about the crash and he asked, ‘Would you let me try to find out who the nurses were?’ He then got the number of one of them, gave it to me and said, ‘She would love to hear from you,’ and I really wanted to say thanks to her.
“She explained that it was she and her best friend of the time who had saved me. She said, ‘When we found you, you were very poorly, and the reason that you are very lucky is that not only did we happen to go by, but the ambulance was just around the corner’.
“I spoke to her about the article and the photographs, but she said that she didn’t really want to do it. And I was glad, actually, because I didn’t want to, either. If Angela’s parents were to see it, they’d have to relive it again, so I’m glad it didn’t happen.”
The day after Don’s accident, Chas Chandler had come up from London to meet with the band. “Chas came to stay with me in Wolverhampton for a few days,” says Swinn. “He was shocked by the news, but he also saw the promotion advantages in it. Everything was a story to him. And then, of course, he was concerned with the gigs that had already been booked.”
“He met with the rest of the band at Jim’s house,” Don says. “Jim’s younger brother Frank was there, fixing some plumbing, and when Chas said they might have to cancel some gigs on the Isle of Man, Frank said that he could play. I’d given Frank my first Ludwig kit to develop his drumming.”
A couple of months after the accident, Don was back with Slade. His speedy recovery surprised everybody, and only his fit condition made it possible. Many years of athletics, boxing and the exertion of being a drummer helped him recover physically, but mentally it was not that easy. “Don got back to working rather quickly,” his sister Carol comments, “but only because the rest of the band helped him. He couldn’t remember a thing.”
“After the accident, we as a band and a close-knit unit rallied round him to help,” Dave seconds. “It must have been difficult for Don, not being able to remember the day before, but we supported him as a group, helping him to remember things. But Don had such a good sense of humour, which seemed to override a lot of things. I think the camaraderie, as we called it in the band, and Don’s sense of humour helped.”
“I dealt with it by making fun of myself,” Don agrees, “and very quickly, I got back in the studio. I remember that Chas would cue me through the control-room window, because I couldn’t remember the simplest things. I was doing the beats and he was counting and then, sometimes, I’d drum something else that I knew. It was about being reminded of things. Just cue me in.”
Slade were recording their next single, ‘My Friend Stan’, with ‘My Town’ as the B-side. By then, all songs were penned by Nod and Jim, and the single was released in September 1973, reaching number two in the charts. “When we first went back in the recording studio to do ‘My Friend Stan’, our engineer, Alan O’Duffy, understood my problem,” Don recalls. “He was so nice. He had worked with us on most of the early hits. It was him who suggested I keep diaries. He said, ‘You write down what you have done and what you have to do. That will help exercise your brain.’ I always used to have a soft spot for Alan because of that.”
“I then started buying him a diary each year,” says Carol, “a big book where he could write down everything.”
After Don’s release, he went to the Brands Hatch motor-racing circuit in Kent. “There were a lot of people there, like Cozy Powell and Keith Emerson, and they took part in a charity race,” Len Tuckey explains. “Don was there and, although he wasn’t fully recovered, he was smiling and everything, so he seemed to be OK, which was a relief for everybody. We knew he was going to be fine. He just had to heal, basically. Everyone was very, very happy with that.”
“In reality, I felt like shit,” Don reveals. “I wasn’t prepared, neither physically nor mentally. I was on walking sticks, I had no hair, my skull was held together with clamps and I really didn’t want to be there. A lot of bands attended that gathering and I remember just sitting down in a corner. Everybody was drinking and partying and I felt terrible. Then Olivia Newton-John came over and sat with me and she was fantastic. She was holding my hand and talking to me. I’ll always remember that, because she was great.”