According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of busking is, “to play music or otherwise perform for voluntary donations in the street or subway”. Nearly as old as the oldest profession itself, street entertainers have been peddling their wares to passers by for a small remuneration since time immemorial. In the fifties the guitar came into prominence via skiffle and young would-be buskers took to the easily portable instrument like ducks to water. All they had to do was learn half a dozen chords, memorize a few lyrics and away you go, hit the streets and make a buck. If you were to ask people of a certain age to name a busker, nine times out of ten the first name out of the hat would be Don Partridge, the self- proclaimed ‘King of the Buskers’ and the most unlikely of pop stars. A self-confessed itinerant, Don plied his trade all over Europe long before fame came knocking. Mostly though, he worked the streets of London where a daily cat-and-mouse game would be played out between the canny guitarist and the local bobby’s who would either chase him off, or if caught, drag him up before the beak for a telling off and a two quid fine, a small price to pay as a good busker on a prime pitch could earn a tidy penny. Don’s birth is the only connection he has to the Bournemouth area much like John Hawken, Peter Bellamy and Darrell Sweet as he moved away at a tender age but, however tenuous the link, this is his story.
Donald Eric Partridge was born in Bournemouth on 27th October 1941 of gypsy stock, which goes someway to explaining his nomadic lifestyle. By the age of seven, the family had relocated to Earls Court in London, where a young Don would often see street performers working close to his home. His father Eric, a Django Reinhardt style jazz guitarist, bought him a ukulele banjo on which Don learnt a few tunes, mostly George Formby songs. He left school at fifteen and worked numerous labouring jobs, subsidised by odd bits of petty thievery, until he realised holding down a steady job was not in his DNA and struck out on his own. With a few quid from a tax rebate in his pocket and a new sleeping bag on his back, he headed for Dover and hitchhiked around France for six months. On his travels he realised that if he took up busking, he could earn enough money to fund his travels indefinitely. Returning to London he bought a guitar, learnt a few chords and for the next three years performed in coffee bars and folk clubs, sometimes as a duo with another budding folk singer, Alan Young. When the constant hustling for gigs became a chore, the pair tried their luck on the streets. Don’s first pitch was outside Richmond rail station where, forty minutes later, he was moved on by an irate railway inspector. His takings amounted to a non-too shabby thirteen bob.
As summer approached Don and Andy struck out for the West Country with a guy called Pat in tow acting as their bottle man, the person responsible for collecting the money and keeping an eye out for the law. Their first port of call was Weymouth, where they worked the promenade next to the clock tower before moving on to Dorchester. Back in London they secured a pitch in Charing Cross Road where an intrigued reporter from the Evening Standard interviewed and photographed the new style of buskers i.e. hip young men with guitars, as opposed to the typical rough looking variety usually found in the West End. Gradually the pair worked their way up to a lucrative patch in Leicester Square where they entertained the evening cinema and theatre queues at the Odeon, Rialto Empire and Prince Charles. During the day they could be found at the markets in Petticoat Lane, Portobello Road and Brick Lane, or sometimes they would nip across to Old Compton Street and perform a burst, a quick ten minutes as the crowds exited the Casino Cinerama Theatre. Over time Don branched out on his own and settled into a circuit that took him to Ireland in the winter and Europe during the summer months taking in Geneva, Paris, the French Riviera, Germany and Stockholm. During his travels he would hire a bottler, although they couldn’t always be trusted as most were alcoholics and petty thieves, apart from the occasional female student out to make a bob or two to help them through college.
While working a pitch in London with another busker, Pat Keene, the pair accepted an offer from a passing American record producer, Steve Rowland, to make an album. Apparently this kind of overture was common place, and nine times out of ten came to nothing. For once the proposition was real, as Rowland’s portfolio included The Pretty Things and Salisbury’s Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch. A couple of weeks later the duo entered Denmark Street studios with Rowland and session guitarist Alan Caddy and committed their repertoire of old folk and blues tunes, plus one Don original, “I Gotta Go Now”, onto tape in just under an hour. For their troubles they received a tenner each, two copies of the album and months later a royalty check for five shillings and nine-pence. Released on the Fontana label credited to The Brotherhood and called “Singin’ n’ Sole-in’”, the album did absolutely nothing and the Melody Maker dismissed it as, “middle rate skiffle”.
Not long after his initial foray into the world of recording, Don kitted himself out with the paraphernalia of a one-man band. Guitar, harmonica and kazoo in a neck harness, tambourine fixed under the arm and a bass drum strapped to his back operated by a leather strap attached to his foot. The drum rig was knocked up by a guy called Andy Durr from Hastings, who charged him twelve quid for his trouble, Durr later became the mayor of Brighton. The concept wasn’t entirely new as musicians dating back to the middle-ages found ways of playing multiple instruments simultaneously. In the thirties and forties the bluesmen Jesse Fuller and Doctor Ross used guitar, harmonica and drum configurations, only they sat while performing, the default position Don would resort to in later life. Togged out in his trademark snakeskin jacket, Don took his new act out onto the streets of the West End and cleaned up, raking in around four hundred quid a week, an absolute fortune.
In 1968 Don gained national recognition after he was spotted in Soho by the record executive Don Paul, previously of the rock group The Viscounts. He was invited to Regent Sound Studios to record two original compositions, “Rosie” and “Going Back to London” for a single. It took two takes and cost just over a fiver to commit the songs to tape. To promote the single he appeared on the Eamonn Andrews Show in a segment filmed in the Kings Road, Chelsea with Don busking and Andrews acting as his bottler, the publicity pushed the single up to number four in the charts.
Don suddenly found himself in demand becoming a fixture on the radio and regularly appearing on television in shows such as the Bobbie Gentry Show, Roger Whittaker’s Whistle Stop, Set ‘em up Joe with Joe Brown, the kids show Hullabaloo and on Top of the Pops where the novelty of a one-man band caught the public’s imagination. With agents and promoters clamouring to book this unique act, Don reluctantly took orthodox gigs in nightclubs and joined a package tour with Gene Pitney, Amen Corner, Status Quo and Simon Dupree and the Big Sound which called into the Winter Gardens on 20th April 1968. However, the bright lights weren’t to his liking and he quickly became increasingly bored playing his one hit. At one show a member of the audience shouted out a request for “Rosie”, Don, in no uncertain terms, told them to “piss off”. The promoter, Arthur Howes, was livid. On another occasion he appeared with the comedian Les Dawson and soul singer Solomon King on a variety bill, only this time he directed his acid tongue at his fellow artiste by introducing the amply proportioned soul man as “Solomon King, the Alabama hippo”. Don gained a reputation for being difficult to manage and a liability, despite 1968 being his big year. His second single “Blue Eyes” sailed up the charts to number three, his self-titled album enjoyed healthy sales, Disc and Music Echo put him on their front page and he appeared as himself in the low budget, but rarely seen Fred Marshall film, Popdown, along with Zoot Money. The only downside was his third single, “Top Man”, failed to chart.
Royalties flooded in helping him fulfil an ambition to stage a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 29th January 1969, solely comprising of buskers. Compere Nat ‘Paris Nat’ Schaffer introduced a motley array of tap dancers, accordionists, spoon players, jugglers, banjo pluckers, jesters, guitar pickers, violinists, escapologists, a strong man, a Punch and Judy Show, future Hawkwind founder Dave Brock, the Happy Wanders Jazz Band plus Don’s friends, Alan Young and Pat Keene, in a show billed as ‘The Buskers In Concert’. Organised by Don, his manager Don Paul and the publicist Max Clifford, the gang of misfits, odd balls and entertainers played to a delighted sold-out audience. After the hire of the hall had been settled, the remaining proceeds were shared equally between the performers. The concert was committed to celluloid, but then disappeared after Don failed to sign a contract. An album of the event was recorded and released simply entitled “The Buskers”.
Don’s fourth single, “Breakfast on Pluto”, struggled to a lowly twenty-six, however, it was resurrected in 2005 as the title song for the Neil Jordan film of the same name. Later in the year he was commissioned to supply a song, “Homeless Bones”, for the Dick Clement directed film Otley starring Tom Courtney, Romy Schneider, Leonard Rossiter, and James Bolam. By now his star was on the wane and further singles, “Colour My World”, “Going to Germany” and his last solo effort, “We’re All Happy Together” were all met with general apathy. The novelty had worn off.
In 1970 Don formed the acoustic folk / jazz / rock ensemble Accolade with guitarist Gordon Giltrap, Brian Cresswell on flute, Malcolm Pool contrabass and fiddle and drummer Ian Hoyle. Ploughing a similar furrow to Pentangle, only more jazzy, they recorded one single, “Natural Day” and two Don Paul produced albums, “Accolade” and “Accolade 2”, with folk stalwart Wiz Jones replacing Giltrap on the second as he had stepped down to pursue a solo career. On the first, Don shows he’s no slouch on the vibraphone, as he adds a solo to the standout track, Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy”, which was a huge hit for Nat King Cole back in 1948. The other highlight is Gordon Giltrap’s excellent guitar playing, which shines throughout, making the debut a slightly better proposition than the sequel. Both records are held in high regard by both fans of psychedelic tinged folk and acoustic jazz fusion, but unfortunately at the time the general populace didn’t buy into them. Unbowed Don returned to what he did best, busking. Fame may have brought him money, a flash car, handmade suits and even a short-lived career as a restaurateur with his own Stew and Wine Shop, but what he yearned for was a simpler way of life back on the streets, where the light from a lamp-post replaced the artificial glare of the spotlight.
Aware that hitting the streets of London would only bring harassment from strangers asking him about his fall from the limelight and endless request for the hits, he headed to Stockholm, where over a three-year period he married a Swedish girl and recorded an album, 1974’s “Don Partridge and Friends”. But his biggest claim to fame was to inadvertently legalise busking by challenging a court ruling over an unfair fine. He discovered the financial penalty for entertaining in the streets was far greater than that metered out to a mugger who snatched an old lady’s handbag. A local newspaper and a leading politician took up his cause, forcing a change in the law allowing musicians to perform on the streets, a move that backfired as every busker in the vicinity descended on Stockholm, severely limiting Don’s earnings. In 1976 he travelled throughout Canada where he busked at the Montreal Olympic Games and ventured further afield to Hawaii, before returning to England in the late seventies. He initially lived in a longboat, then a horse-drawn caravan, a fisherman’s cottage in Brixham and finally a house in the East Sussex town of Seaford. In 2004 he released his final LP, “The Highwayman”, for a small Brighton based label. The eleven tracks contained a selection of autobiographical songs inspired by his life on the road, with titles such as “Copenhagen Summer Nights”, “Trans- Canadian Highway” and the humorous “The Night I Met Elton John”.
Late into his career Don found favour with the younger generation, when he acted as support to the electronic duo Lemon Jelly and played gigs with the indie pop band British Sea Power. He also appeared on the TV comedy music quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks as an identity parade guest. His final days were spent in Peacehaven, busking in the local shopping precinct and various resorts along the coast, but by now the years of carrying a heavy drum on his back had taken its toll and he preferred to sit with his bass drum on the floor. Over the years he had several slogans stencilled on the skin including “Nil bastardo carborundum carpe diem”, Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, “Chacun à son gout”, French for “Each to their own taste”, “Snake hips Partridge, King of the Street Singers” and most famously in his heyday, “Galactic Lord of the Wide Open Spaces” which was also emblazoned on his coffin. Old age didn’t dim his cantankerous rebellious streak, as he still refused to sing “Rosie” when asked, claiming he had played it enough over the years. The time spent in the spotlight did not sit well with Don. He disliked being recognised and craved anonymity. He also despised the stuffy nature of the gigs and the ignorant audiences he had to play to, although he said it was a lot easier than the streets where he had to contend with traffic noise and coppers out for an easy nick.
Don died suddenly on 21st September 2010 of a heart attack while out walking. A year later his partner Pamela Hall passed away with cancer. He had been married three times and is survived by four daughters and two sons. A one off maverick who ploughed a lone furrow, Don Partridge was a talented singer, songwriter, musician, poet and without a doubt, ‘King of the Buskers’.
For all Don’s hits try, “Don Partridge: Rosie and Other Hits”, a 1995 double CD on the Oxford label.
Don Partridge Discography
The Brotherhood Album
The Brotherhood: Singin’ n’ Sole-in’: Fontana (STL 5390) 1966
Don Partridge Singles
Rosie c/w Going Back to London: Columbia (DB 8330) 1968
Blue Eyes c/w I’ve Got Something for You: Columbia (DB 8416) 1968
Top Man c/w We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: Columbia (DB 8484) 1968
Breakfast on Pluto c/w Stealin’: Columbia (DB 8538) 1969
Colour My World c/w Homeless Bones: Columbia (DB 8583) 1969
Going to Germany c/w Ask Me Why: Columbia (DB 8617) 1969
We’re All Happy Together c/w Following Your Fancy: Columbia (DB 8723) 1970
Grand Slam Boogie c/w Barb Wire: Europa Film (1007) 1982
Don Partridge Albums
Don Partridge: Columbia (SCX 6280) 1968
Don Partridge and Friends: Sonogram (LSG 72002) 1974
Street Harvest: Europa Film Records (ELP 5004) 1982
Rosie and Other Hits: Oxford (OXCDDP6280-03) 1995 Compilation
The Highwayman: Long Man Records (033CD) 2004
Don Partridge: Cherry Red (CDM RED 402) 2009 CD with five bonus tracks
Film soundtracks featuring Don Partridge
Otley: Colgems (COS-112) 1968 Homeless Bones
Breakfast on Pluto: Milan Records (M2-36149) 2006 Breakfast on Pluto
Natural Day c/w Prelude to Dawn: Columbia (DB 8688) 1970
Accolade: Columbia (SCX 6405) 1970
Accolade 2: Regal Zonophone (SLRZ 1024) 1971
Album featuring Don Partridge
The Buskers: Columbia (SCX 6356) 1969 “Rosie”, “Keep on Tracking Mama”, “William Tell Overture” and “Salty Dog”