Peter Thornhill commented on our Torquay History column on the early 60s South Devon folk scene. We’ve been in touch, and this is his story…
Music is in my blood, my grandmother had her own orchestra in Calcutta in the 1920s. The family returned to England in 1925 and my mother learned to play the ukulele and piano when I was 10 years old. I had one of those illnesses in the 50s that seemed to take it’s time to get over and was confined to the bedroom where I leant to play the ukulele on my own.
My mother showed an interest and would accompany me on the piano from time to time. She started to learn to play the guitar under the guidance of a lodger, called Peter Ryland. He was a strange character to me at my age, but was very good at jazz guitar and taught my mother to play. We had catholic taste in music in our family, and it was not unusual for me to arrive home from school, to find Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Lane sitting by the fire talking jazz.
Watching my mother playing the guitar, I soon picked up the chords, at first, just playing with three of them at a time, I soon realised that I could do much more. I could already play the harmonica, having learnt at about the age of six. The first song I learnt was the hit record, Under The Bridges of Paris With Me.
I found that I could play the harmonica and guitar together, but it had its limitations, as I liked to play Gershwin and similar music, because it required hands free to use the button on the end of the harmonica.
As time went by, we decided to start a trio, comprising of me, my mother and a friend called Dick. We practiced harmonies, and guitar chords. About this time, I learnt to play five a string banjo, having learnt to play the ukulele previously.
At this time, about 1962 we started to go to the Ship Inn in Newton Abbot. The folk club was in a small room upstairs, and was the only one of its kind in the area. In about 1963 I played with Rambling Jack Elliott at the Ship Inn Newton Abbot, which ultimately turned me towards Country Music in about 1970. I was then running a club at RAF Scampton in Lincoln.
About 1964, We were invited to play as a group at the Sidmouth Folk Festival. The year before that, my father had the idea of starting a folk club in Paignton, he was working for Martins Bank Ltd, at the time. I think one of his customers was the owner of the Casino on the seafront, and he talked them into letting us start a club. It was about this time I met Donovan. I remember, I used to collect Don Leitch (Leach) from the Phyllis Court Hotel on my way through from Torquay, as at that time I lived in Babbacombe with my parents.
This was obviously a good idea, and dad got the security guard, John, to help on the door. Very soon the club became very popular, and on some nights, in excess of 400 people were at the door. The evenings were never planned, and performers just turned up and did a turn. Then we started to book a main artist, who would play/perform for a couple of spots with a break for the local artists. To save on costs these guest artists would stay the night at our house. There were always a dozen local artists ready to play and sing during the evening.
Pat Keane and Max Eastley, were fairly regular at the club, when Pat was not busking in Paris. Cyril Tawney, would turn up every month or so from Cornwall. There was a group of young teachers from Exeter who would also arrive, and sing as a group, I believe they called them selves ‘The Ferrymen’, one of them married Pete Seeger’s sister Peggy. Martin Bragg was a local guitar player/singer who was always at the club.
Some of my memories are a little mixed between the Ship Inn and the Casino after all these years, but I Know that we had Paul Simons, Maddy Prior, Donovan, Nigel Denver, John Renbourn, Jerry Lockrin, Martin Carthy and many more to grace our clubs, so many that I am sorry to say, I can not name them all. There was Miriam Mckenssey, who could down a pint while singing a single song, and a famous Scottish singer who would sober up, when we were putting him to bed, particularly, when his money fell out of his pocket.
On one occasion I went to Liverpool and visited a club in West Kirby, there I met a young Canadian lad called Mark Sullivan, who turned up with a banjo and a guitar. The people running this club looked at him suspiciously, but decided that he could play one song, as he was an unknown quantity. This lad played the most fantastic banjo you had ever heard, ‘Skillet Good en Greasy’, a piece normally played with two banjos and he played both parts at the same time. The organisers decided that he could carry on playing and his guitar playing was just as good. At the end of the evening I invited him, if ever he was in Devon to call on us. Two weeks later he arrived on our doorstep and stayed for several weeks. I often wonder what happened to him.
Davy Graham, was famous for his song Angie. Davy and his mother stayed with us in Torquay, and we had a fabulous time playing music at home, this also applies to Martin Carthy, who played the most fantastic blues and American folk music. (Not in public, because his image was English folk music). Incidentally, it was probably my 21st birthday party that got Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy together all those years ago.
Don Partridge would arrive on our doorstep, all he would say was ‘can I borrow the floor again’ this was something he did regularly in the summer, as he was playing on the street corners and busking on the beaches around Torquay and Paignton. I remember, one occasion, he arrived, put his sleeping bag and backpack on the floor of the lounge with his drum, only to realise that he had left his guitar in London, he left his kit on the floor, and said ‘I’ll go and get it, see you tomorrow’. Sure enough he was back the next day. It was in 1968 that I joined the RAF and never saw Don again, shortly after he became famous with his song Rosie.
Those were the days. When I joined the RAF, I met up with Lindisfarne and Jasper Carrot, Judy Collins and The Spinners, and then slowly turned more to Country Music; but this is another time in my life and another story, and played with the Johnny Cash Road Show at a private party at the Golden Lion, Ashburton in 1978, then owned by Alan Hope, one of the backing singers for David Lord Sutch (Raving Looney Party) David was a very quiet man until he got on stage.
(Images, from the top: Peter in the 60s; The Billy Boys; the Torbay Three; Max Eastley and Pat Keane; Miriam Mckenssey; Mark Sullivan; The WayFarers)