The Grosvenor Rooms, Prince of Wales Road, Norwich. May 17, 1963.
It is hard to visualise what happened here. The elegant square building with GROSVENOR ROOMS spelt out in giant letters at the top, and DANCING down the side, is long, long gone.
Where beat fans once rushed excitedly towards the ticket desk, meat fans now munch contentedly in the Kentucky Fried Chicken. Where girls with big hair once rushed the stage screaming, media types with tiny mobiles now rush about an office block - busy, busy, busy.
You’d think it would be unrecognisable today, but Ray Aldous and Peter Holmes can conjure the scene with great ease.
"That’s where The Beatles drove in," points Ray. "They parked the van down there," agrees Peter. "And loaded the gear in there."
Ray and Peter were both 33 when they gave Norwich The Beatles. Now 78, they retain a hint of the showbiz, with smart blue blazers and top pocket hankies.
‘Raymondo’ and ‘Pedro’, as they occasionally address each other, have known each other since they were four-year-olds at St Augustine’s Primary School and display the easy rapport of friends for life, fair weather and foul.
Together with the late Geoffrey Walker, they started promoting events at the Grosvenor Rooms in the 1950s, initially only part-time because Peter was working as a furniture salesman in Timberhill and Ray as a window dresser at the Fifty Bob Tailors in Gentleman’s Walk. Initially, they put on ‘hops’, the discos of their day, and live bands only entered the frame as a bit of light relief between the records.
"We thought ‘what do we do in the intervals because these kids are all running round and that’s when trouble starts’," explains Ray.
A group led by Norwich teenager Ricky Lee became the promoters’ first live booking. "We had heard of them and asked what they charged. They said £6 but they were good so we put them on in the intervals.
"Then that became popular so we reversed it and played records in the intervals. It went on from there."
The association continued and happily it was Ricky Lee and the Hucklebucks who scooped the plum support slot at the city’s most talked-about concert.
The Beatles’ only Norwich gig came about by a happy mixture of luck and judgment.
Several months earlier, another amateur promoter, Alan Lockwood, was offered a band on the up called The Beatles but turned them down because they were asking too much money. Alan worked at Alexander’s - the tailors next door to Ray’s - and when Ray heard about the offer, he got straight on the phone, dealt directly with Brian Epstein, and made the booking of his life. He recalls the initial fee as being £45.
"He sounded all right," says Ray of The Beatles’ beloved Eppy. "He was a bit stingy though because he whipped it up to £250."
Though the band were relatively unknown with only one single, Love Me Do, to their name, by the time of the actual concert their star was steeply in the ascendant.
At the start of May 1963 they notched up their first number one single with From Me To You and their first album Please Please Me also topped the charts just six days before the Norwich date.
For Ray and Peter the timing was poptastic. On April 19 they, and Epstein, signed the deal. It was agreed that The Beatles would "do two 20-minute spots" at the Grosvenor Rooms on May 17 for a flat fee of £250 - in those days a princely sum for any act.
A huge poster went up outside the Grosvenor and a gushing advert hit the local press:
"We had people writing in asking for tickets from beyond Norfolk," remembers Ray. "And on the night there were so many people outside that the queue was joining up with the queue for the ABC."
Despite a slight concern that the band might be delayed after their short holiday in the Canaries, bang on time the famous blue Bedford van rolled up on the afternoon of May 17, 1963. Apart from a driver, the lads apparently had no roadies in tow and set up their own equipment on the Grosvenor’s tiny stage.
Then in their early 20, the lads came across as friendly, polite and not at all starry - chatting with easy charm, signing autographs and posing for pictures with anyone who asked.
"Paul was jolly. Ringo was the comedian. George never said a dickie-bird. And John was quiet. You didn’t get much out of John. He was the quiet man in the corner," says Ray. "John was the one talking about promotion and seemed to be the leader," adds Peter. "They were heading for the big time. You could see it."
After a short soundcheck, they went off to get some food and then caught a movie at the ABC cinema next door but one to the Grosvenor.
By show time, some 1700 people had squeezed into the former ballroom, despite an entrance price hike from the usual 2/6d for a Friday night, to 7/6d.
Local favourite Ricky Lee had a regular following and there is no doubt that at least part of the audience had turned out that night to see him and his Hucklebucks.
The Beatles, of course, were something else. There was no stage security in those days, so Ray had to stand at the back of the stage in case temperatures, or hormones, ran too high.
He had a Beatles-eye view:
Beatles fan Anita Culley watched events from the front row:
Though the booze ran free for the punters at the Grosvenor - "they would come up and buy a crate and then sit on it for the evening" - the fab Four appeared to be clean-living lads, recalls Ray.
"We used to book drinks in the interval for the band but I don’t think they had any. They might have just had soft drinks. That’s the reason why they stood out so well I should think. I don’t even remember them smoking."
"They were very professional," agrees Peter. "It just flowed from one song to another. Other bands would tune up in between."
After playing the Please Please Me album virtually in its entirety, The Beatles were gone. No messing about, no encore, no overnight stay in a swanky Norwich hotel, only fish and chips with fans at Valori’s chippy in Rose Lane.
As he watched them carry their equipment from the back door of the venue, Peter Holmes spotted something in The Beatles’ well-travelled van. It was two young ladies. Peter asked in all innocence: "Have you brought the girlfriends with you, then?"
"No," replied an unspecified mop top (I’d wager it was Ringo), "we’ve never seen them before!"
Ray and Peter remember not only The Beatles, but the whole Grosvenor Rooms period, with the greatest of affection.
"It was exciting. The Sixties were exciting," says Peter. "It was the days of the top 20, the pop scene and everybody was into music.
"We both drove about in sports cars - we were jack the lads."
Over the years, the pair brought many a great name to Norwich - Joe Brown, Marty Wilde, Gene Vincent, Frank Ifield and even Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, whose swashbuckling front man caused alarm when he plunged his sword between the keys of the Grosvenor’s grand piano. (Ray shrinks and cringes dramatically at the memory.)
Ray was always "the chancer", explains Peter, and when the lease on the Grosvenor Rooms expired he made music promotion his career - first at the Gala and then the Melody Rooms and Norwich City Football Club.
Peter preferred the dependability of furniture and continues to sell it in the city.
What happened to John, Paul, George and Ringo is, as they say, a matter of history.
Ricky and the Fab Four
Ricky Lee was the local rock’n’roller who shared their dressing room.
The mystery chord, the big nappy pin, John’s inability to see... in our endless affair with The Beatles, Ricky Lee was a one-night-stand in 1963. Yet the unassuming Norwich man - ‘the man who backed the Beatles’ - remains a mine of wonderful anecdotes.
Ricky’s brush with showbiz began in the 1950s as one half of the bizarrely named La Rue Brothers and peaked the following decade as The Hucklebucks’ handsome singer. The band fast became local heroes, playing venues all over the region. Their favourite bookings were US airbases where they were well paid, well fed and where the friendly American servicemen would help unload their equipment. Music-wise, they played everything under the sun - from rock’n’roll to r&b to pop cover versions. "And we did Beatles songs," adds Ricky. "We did a Beatles number that night actually."
Ah yes. That night. Ricky and his Hucklebucks had landed what panned out to be the plummiest of plum support slots and on May 17, 1963, lugged their primitive gear on to the tiny stage at The Grosvenor Rooms. They were opening for The Beatles.
"I knew right from before we played with them they were going to be big. The Please Please Me album had just been released and we used to do a couple of tracks from it. On that night it caused a bit of a ruckus though."
Ricky is relaying his wonderful tale about ‘that night’ between coffee sips at the Hotel Nelson. Looking out at the ghost of the old Grosvenor - now a Kentucky Fried Chicken and modern office block - the memories trickle back.
"When we got to the venue their gear was already up on stage. We set up around them and had a tinkle round to tune up."
It was from the stage, surrounded by the now iconic Rickenbacker, Gretch and Hofner guitars, that Ricky first spotted the Fabs.
"Paul McCartney came in leading John Lennon by the arm because his eyesight was so bad. I think they had just been to the cinema - the Regent is it? - just down the road. I knew he had bad eyes and coming out of the pictures must have made them even worse."
The first thing that struck him was John Lennon’s shabby appearance. Though the lads were understandably dressed in on-the-road outfits of jeans, T-shirts and jumpers, Ricky was shocked to see that Lennon’s trousers were held up by a safety pin. "He had one of those big baby’s nappy pins at the top of his jeans and my first thought was, ‘you scruffy bastards!’ But they introduced themselves and were ever so friendly. They had a lot of charm. Their accents were hard to understand but they were not offish at all. They just mixed in straight away."
Hucklebucks and Beatles shared a small dressing room to the side of the stage and apparently hit it off.
"We were just chatting and there was one Beatles song we were in the process of putting together. Mick, our rhythm guitarist, asked George Harrison what chord he played in the chorus and George Harrison said, ‘I don’t know what you call it but this is how you play it’.
"I thought to myself, if these people are composing these songs, how do they do it if they don’t know what the chords are? It’s amazing because they put some very, very complicated chords in that stuff."
Ricky soon got the impression that Macca ("a good-looking guy, good voice as well") was the man in charge.
"It struck me that Paul McCartney was the leader. He seemed to be doing all the organising and he was the most serious one in respect of being more business-like. He’d be the one who’d say, ‘let’s just go through this number’".
Ringo was less serious: "Our drummer had a laugh with Ringo because it was a small stage and the two drum kits were side by side and Ringo was going round his drums and kept smacking into ours!"
By this point in their career, The Beatles were not quite stratospheric but certainly no slackers. 1963 was theirs for the taking.
At the beginning of the month they enjoyed their first number one single, From Me To You and the weekend before the Norwich concert their debut album Please Please Me also hit number one.
What happened when The Hucklebucks struck up with one of their Beatles cover versions is wholly unsurprising then.
"The bar emptied and there was a stampede to the stage," laughs Ricky. "They thought the Beatles had come on and they had missed the beginning.
"I remember John Lennon standing there strumming along with us while we were playing. That was quite nice. He was obviously enjoying it. There was nothing at all conceited about them."
But it was when the real thing burst on to the stage that proper hell broke loose. Standing in the wings behind a makeshift screen, Ricky was literally knocked off his feet when the crowd surged forward and the screaming started up.
"It was fantastic. They were so good. I think the first number they did was Love Me Do. It just sounded like the record.
"They went through their album. They must have done every song on that album."
The lads were the epitome of slick professionalism and looked the part too with their Beatle cuts and expensive collarless suits.
"We played with a lot of the top bands but The Beatles were different. Very rarely did they sound the way they did on the records but The Beatles did. They just had something different about them."
Ricky was 20 when he stepped briefly into the Liverpudlians’ limelight. By day he was manager of a motor-parts company on Dereham Road. By night he worked the local circuit relentlessly and built quite a following. David Bowie, John Lee Hooker, Them, Cream, Cilla Black, the Animals (three times), Rod Stewart ("I didn’t like him at all"), Gene Vincent, The Sweet, The Kinks - Ricky played with them all.
The Hucklebucks had been going for five or six years by the time they played with The Beatles but never quite made the big time and the dream eventually fizzled out.
"We could have gone to Germany and everything, but we were a little bit too serious..." says Ricky wistfully.
Ricky has mixed emotions about his ‘claim to fame’ and out of the excitement of that night at the Grosvenor lingers a sadness.
"It isn’t a claim to fame. That’s like saying, ‘I’m Mrs Paul McCartney’.
"Put it this way. I’d rather be remembered for our band than as the band that backed The Beatles. If that’s all they can say about your life.."
If it’s any consolation, it sounds like The Beatles enjoyed meeting and hearing Ricky Lee and The Hucklebucks... that night.
John Talbot and Mick Fisher were the lads about town who passed the salt and vinegar.
Everybody needs an image. For John Talbot, Mick Fisher and their circle of Yarmouth mates, it was a white carnation in the lapel when they went out for a night on the tiles. It helped with chatting up girls, they reckoned.
So when John and Mick bumped into The Beatles in a Norwich fish and chip shop, talk soon turned to their appearance.
"We were chatting to them and one of the Beatles asked if we’d been to a wedding," laughs John. "We said, ‘no, we’ve been to see you!’ They were dressed in scruffy jeans and roll-neck pullovers."
Meanwhile, a small storm was brewing outside, including the mandatory outbreak of screaming girls peering through the window. The Fabs asked John and Mick where they were from and the conversation became animated when they said Yarmouth.
"They said, ‘there are loads of birds from Yarmouth here - you’ll be able to pull tonight!’"
Mick corroborates: "They said we ought to come backstage because there were a whole load of girls from Yarmouth who wanted to get a lift home."
Unfortunately for Mick and John, every last place in the van they had borrowed for the night was spoken for. They would have to pass up the Fab offer.
This surreal scene, which would not have been out of place in the movie A Hard Day’s Night, took place at Valori’s chippy on Rose Lane in Norwich. It was Friday, May 17, 1963 and John, Paul, George and Ringo had just taken the nearby Grosvenor Rooms by storm.
"There was a load of us lads used to go about together and one of them had heard The Beatles on the radio. I hadn’t a clue who they were," admits John.
He had, however, heard of the local support act and so joined the throng at the Grosvenor Rooms.
"We’d seen Ricky Lee and the Hucklebucks before. They were good and there was more attention given to Ricky Lee than there was to The Beatles, especially from the girls."
Mick and John recall little of The Beatles’ performance other than "dancing about a lot" and a general great atmosphere. The chip- shop encounter is etched a little deeper.
Following the gig, the five friends became separated as they walked up Rose Lane towards their van at the old Cattle Market car park. John and Mick fancied some grub on the way and nipped into Valori’s.
"The Beatles were there putting salt and vinegar on their chips and there were loads of girls outside screaming and shouting," says John.
The mop tops were all friendly enough though it seemed as if George "didn’t belong".
"He was at the back. The others were all bouncing about but he just seemed as if he was making up the numbers."
Others there that night recall that the lads ordered haddock, their fish of choice back in Liverpool, but were disappointed to find none on the Valori menu.
"What d’you eat round here, then?" asked a peeved John Lennon. "Everybody likes cod," came the reply, a story backed up by the Valori family today.
Cod and chips it was, then.
It may only have been John, Paul and George who visited Valori’s that night, as Ringo was apparently detained back at the Grosvenor. According to one eye-witness, a young lady fan was getting cosy on the cuddly drummer’s knee in the dressing room knocking back rum and blackcurrant - much to the chagrin of her boyfriend who was ready for a fight until Lennon intervened and gave peace an early chance.
The Valori Chip Shop story.
With shops scattered all over the city, for many years Valori’s was the best-known catering dynasty in Norwich.
By the 1960s there were as many as 10 outlets run by different branches of the same family, in Dereham Road, Prince of Wales Road, Rose Lane, Wolfe Road, Bishop Bridge Road, Nelson Street and St George’s Street.
‘Life is but one short span and ere you pass to glory, eat all the fish and chips you can but get them from Valori’s,’ read the sign hanging up in Valori’s in Nelson Street, the final shop to close its doors.
The Rose Lane shop patronised by The Beatles in 1963 was run by Armido Valori, who died earlier this year, and his sister Marisa. She recalled that the man behind the counter who served the hungry performers that night was the late Jimmy Hughes, who went on to open his own chip shop which still trades in Suffolk Square.
In 1971 Valori’s on Rose Lane was knocked down and rebuilt on the same site next door to the Tudor Hall nightclub, later Peppermint Park. It is now closed down, boarded up and on the market.
A night to remember for two fans
Jill Daynes and Sally Sistern were just teenagers when they met the Beatles backstage at the Grosvenor Rooms in Norwich on May 17, 1963. A plaque is erected to commemorate that concert at the venue.
Smiling for the camera, Jill Daynes and Sally Sistern could hardly believe their luck. They’d just seen the Beatles play - and they finished the evening on the laps of two of the musicians.
The office girls were regulars at gigs in the Grosvenor Rooms, Norwich. It was concert promoter Peter Holmes, who worked with Sally at a city furniture shop, who arranged the meeting with the Fab Four after the show.
"Peter came and found us on the dance floor. We were taken into the room where they were sitting," Jill recalled.
"We couldn’t believe it. If we’d have known, I’d have had some paper ready for the autographs but there was no time."
Jill sat on the lap of her favourite Beatle, George Harrison, while Peter took a picture.
"Paul and Ringo were talking to us but John didn’t really say anything," she remembered. "We had seen Ringo the year before at Butlins at Skegness with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes so we talked about that."
Jill, who worked in the planning office at Bally’s shoe factory in Queen Street at the time, added: "The atmosphere was fantastic. When they did Roll Over Beethoven everybody was singing. It was just magical. They looked so lovely in their Beatles suits. It really was a wonderful night."
Jill and Sally, who still live in Norwich, have been friends since they were 16 and have never forgotten the concert.
"They were brilliant on stage," said Sally.
"There was a heck of a lot of screaming. All the girls were at the front and all pushed forward."
Sally’s younger sister Linda King (nee Gosling) also posed for the photo in a yellow dress and stood next to Ringo. Sally sat on the lap of her favourite Beatle, Paul McCartney, and he kissed her cheek.
"I grabbed him because I had a crush on him at the time. He was chatty, bouncy and bubbly, but I can’t remember much of what he said," she recalled.
"Afterwards we were full of excitement, making everybody else jealous. It was a topic of conversation for a long time afterwards."
She added: "We had been to several concerts at the Grosvenor - Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, the Searchers. But the atmosphere was nothing like it was that night - and I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere since where it has been. It was absolutely amazing."
How they remembered it
Diane Rolls, Stowmarket:
"My uncle happened to be the late Geoffrey Walker [one of the promoters] and myself and a friend were given front row places, so close in fact that I was actually able to hold on to Paul McCartney’s foot during the performance.
"The memory of that night has been one of such excitement and also of pride, if only to say ‘I was there’."
Sandra Hunt (formerly Clitheroe), Bramerton:
"My friend Mary Smythe and I managed to get together the money for tickets and went along to the gig. Even after all this time I remember what I was wearing - a powder blue short-sleeved sweater, a tight knee-length black skirt and black patent stiletto shoes.
"It was a very wonderful evening. We asked if we could go to their dressing room and get their autographs and, upon opening the door, we were confronted by the Beatles - trouserless!
"They were changing into jeans and blue and white checked shirts."
Pam Harris (formerly Childs), Bergh Apton:
"I was there with my friend Jenny Todd. We were right at the front of the band, just out of the picture.
"We went backstage after the show and they signed our album, Please Please Me, which I hope Jenny still has!
"They were terrific - it was a wonderful night I’ll never forget."