Tony Blackburn

Guildford, the county town of Surrey, lies ninety miles northeast of Bournemouth. Originally a small Saxon town, it now verges on the southwestern tip of Greater London and is a desirable place to live within the commuter belt. It was here on 29th January 1943 that Antony Kenneth Blackburn was born at the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home to Pauline a nurse and Kenneth a General Practitioner. The pair met at Croydon Hospital while attending to casualties during the Blitz and married in 1942 prior to Ken joining the merchant navy as a ships’ surgeon. On discharge, Ken bought a plot of land in Anthony’s Avenue, Lilliput, a leafy suburb of Poole, where he supervised the construction of a bungalow for the family, especially equipped to accommodate Tony’s wheelchair bound younger sister, Jackie.

Tony attended Mrs Mudge’s Nursery School, then Castle Court Junior School on Constitution Hill, Parkstone before entering Millfield School in Street, Somerset as a boarder on the back of a sports scholarship. Although he was never a sports fanatic, his inherent talents were put to good use in the school’s football, cricket and rugby teams. In his free time, he learnt to play the guitar with help from Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day book and formed a skiffle group with three like-minded pupils. They made their live debut in a school concert held at the Glastonbury Town Hall.

Millfield Boarding School in Street, Somerset, known for its sporting alumni

Ultimately, Millfield proved to be an unhappy experience for Tony, and he left unexpectedly at the age of sixteen. He returned home to his surprised but supportive parents, who sympathised with his account of how the school had given up on his academic qualities, preferring him to fill their trophy cabinet. They arranged private tuition to help him through his upcoming exams and their investment paid off with ten O levels and a successful application to enroll onto an HND Business Studies course at Bournemouth Technical College. During the summer, he worked for the Bournemouth Corporation Beach Catering Service and leading up to Christmas he spent a month working for the Post Office in Parkstone. He used his wages to purchase his first quality guitar, a red Hofner Verithin which he still owns.

Richard Webb’s family owned the Minns chain of music stores and lived a couple miles down the road from Tony in the desirable area of Sandbanks. After school, Richard would take advantage of the instruments at his disposal in his dad’s shop, trying out various guitars with his friend John Penhale. Richard was a natural and became a dab hand at picking up basic chords, while John soon realised that he didn’t have a musical ear and took the only route open to him, he became a drummer. Meanwhile Tony was at home strumming his guitar and honing his singing voice into an approximation of Cliff Richard with school friends Ted Rawles, who would try and pick out lead lines on a borrowed guitar and Pete Ballam who converted an old banjo into a bass. Eventually Richard and John pooled their talents with another guitarist, Rob Tibble and brought in Tony as vocalist.

After several line-up changes, the group morphed into the rather naively named Tony Blackburn and his Swinging Bells, a label that presented a not to be missed opportunity for a local wag who went around altering posters for impending gigs to the more eye-catching, Tony Blackburn and his Swinging Balls. For a short time, Tony adopted the stage name Vernon Lawrence to sound more glamorous, but that was soon ditched in preference to an image makeover that saw him donning a pair of tight black trousers, white winkle pickers, patterned socks and a mohair jumper all topped off with a large Brylcreemed quiff. The group became a popular draw around town and caught Jan Ralfini’s eye, leader of the resident orchestra at the Pavilion ballroom.

Consisting of brass, violins, piano, banjo, drums and double bass and resplendent in red blazers, black trousers, white shirts and black bow ties, the Jan Ralfini Orchestra specialised in a diet of strict tempo waltzes, tangos, quicksteps, and foxtrots. Jan hired Tony to front his orchestra on vocals and guitar as a sop to the growing contemporary pop scene and to appeal to the younger element in his audience. Being strictly old school and a stickler for time keeping, Jan stuck religiously to the same repertoire night after night, so much so, members of the audience would leave to catch the last bus home as the orchestra struck up a particular song. In the interval Tony would entertain the dancers with his newly named band The Rovers, who included three members of Jan’s orchestra, drummer and vocalist Don Neilson, bassist Bob Bell and Allan Auff on the tenor saxophone.

Photo Jan Raffini
Jan Ralfini  and His Band at the Locarno Ballroom Streatham, London

With an eye on his future career, Tony invested his money wisely by improving his guitar skills with the Winton based jazz guitarist Tony Alton and caught a train up to London most Saturdays where he worked on his vocal skills at the Maurice Burman School of Modern Pop Singing. On one of these trips, he visited Cecil Gee’s in Shaftsbury Avenue and splashed out £12 for a gold lamé jacket which he wore to enhance his stage presence. Later visits unearthed a similar jacket in a sparkly shade of blue and another of an indeterminate colour that if push came to shove, could possibly be termed turquoise. By now he was appearing at the Pavilion four nights a week, two while fronting the Ralfini band along with regular vocalist Don Neilson, every Friday evening with his own band, now called The Sabres, and on Tuesday’s at the Big Beat Night where they supported The Sands Combo starring Zoot Money. A typical repertoire would include Cliff’s “Dancing Shoes”, Gerry and the Pacemakers “How Do You Do It”, Joey Dee’s “What Kind of Love is This”, Bobby Vee’s “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and the show stopping Elvis song “Devil in Disguise”, which was regularly requested again later in the set. Tony would also involve the crowd in the “Hully Gully”, a song that required the dancers to follow a series of steps called out by the singer.

The Hully Gully was just one of a whole host of dance crazes that swept across the Atlantic on almost a monthly basis during the early sixties. At any one time the ballrooms of Britain would be filled with teenagers attempting to synchronise their steps and arm movements to the Stroll, the Mashed Potato, Mickey’s Monkey, the Frug, the Dog, the Watusi, the Pony, the Fly, the Locomotion, the Slop, the Madison, the Shimmy-Shimmy, the Turkey Trot, the Swim, the Funky Chicken, the Hitch Hike and the most popular of all, the Twist. Apparently Tony was a master gyrator as he received a mention in the Bournemouth Echo by winning a Twist Contest at the Pavilion, while swinging his hips to the Sands Combo along with his female partner, a certain Estelle Meadows.

In the autumn of 1963 Blackburn attended a gig at the Beacon Royal Hotel featuring the Kapota All Stars and proposed that their bass player, Pete Ballam, form a band to back him at the Big Beat Night as his latest incarnation of The Sabres had broken up. Pete agreed and gathered together drummer Barry Barnes and guitarists Geoff Westwood and Al Stewart (yes that Al Stewart who went onto fame with “Year of the Cat”). Rehearsals took place in Pete’s parent’s front room in Longfleet Road, Poole where the band worked up a set of covers and the odd Stewart original. On the first night, they perfected a routine of warming up the dancers before introducing the star of the show, who would make a grand entrance in one of his glittery jackets and proceed to run through his repertoire, sometimes while writhing on the floor in front of his female admirers. The Sabres would then bring the evening to a close with a set of up-tempo crowd pleasers. As is often the case, the singer thought the guitarist was too loud, however, it was a moot point as the short union came to an acrimonious end over money. Tony and Jan, who promoted the Pavilion gigs, conspired to pay the band below union rate and rather than accepting their lot, they stuck to their principles and quit. Tony quickly assembled a Sabres mark 2 with a friend he met at Bournemouth Technical College, bassist Bob Brunning from Lee Peterson and the Defenders, guitarist Ed Roberts and Jan Ralfini’s drummer, Don Neilson.

The spacious Pavilion ballroom, home of the Big Beat Night (Photograph John Cherry)

By the spring of 1964 the provincial scene in Bournemouth had begun to stifle Tony’s ambitions, so he set about scouring the classifieds in the music press for opportunities to branch out and one particular advert in the New Musical Express caught his eye. The newly launched pirate station, Radio Caroline, was scouting for aspiring disc jockeys and encouraged hopefuls to send in demo tapes. Tony duly cobbled together four Beatles songs interspersed with the appropriate banter and posted the tape to Caroline House, Chesterfield Gardens, Mayfair. A couple of weeks later he was summoned to London, where he passed an audition, and took up his new position on 25th July 1964 on a salary of twenty-five pounds a week, a small fortune. Owned by the Irish music entrepreneur Ronan O’Rahilly, Radio Caroline South transmitted from the Mi Amigo, an old cargo schooner anchored three and a half miles off the coast of Frinton-on-Sea under the protection of the Panamanian flag. Still in its infancy, the station gave Tony a platform to hone his own style of corny jokes, puns and patter and, where possible, plug his favourite soul records on his first ever show, The Big Line-Up

Tony Blackburn Radio Caroline
Tony on board Radio Caroline’s Mi Amigo in 1966

Six months after his debut, a competitor, Radio London, moored up close by. With their slick presentation, classy jingles and non-stop pop programming, the staid format of big band jazz, pop and music from the shows transmitted by Caroline sounded dated. It wasn’t long before London came a knocking and offered Tony a job, but there was a drawback, they insisted he change his name to Mark Roman and present a show called The Roman Empire. After the Vernon Lawrence aberration, there was no way he would be anyone other than Tony Blackburn and on this occasion he passed up the opportunity.

Caroline co-owner, Allan Crawford, heard Tony singing on a number of his jingles and encouraged him to take up a parallel career as a recording artist. Back in his Bournemouth days, he had been rejected by Decca because he was deemed a Cliff Richard clone, but with Crawford’s backing, Tony bagged a deal with Fontana, a subsidiary of the Dutch label Phillips. He subsequently released two singles, “Don’t Get off That Train” and the Bacharach and David ballad, “Is There Another Way to Love You”. To help massage sales he was sent on a week-long promotional tour of clubs and discos where he mimed over his flop records to disinterested punters. The sobering experience dented his confidence and delayed the release of a third single, “Green Light”, by a year. 

Radio Caroline
Anchored three miles offshore from Frinton-on-Sea the Mi Amigo, Radio Caroline 

Meanwhile, out in the busy shipping lanes of the North Sea, Radio London, or Big L as it was more commonly known, came sniffing once again. This time they were successful and lured Tony away to join Kenny Everett, John Peel, Dave Cash, Pete Drummond, Keith Skues, Tommy Vance and Ed Stewart, the cream of the up-and-coming DJ crop. He literally jumped ship from the Mi Amigo to the MV Galaxy and took over the coveted breakfast slot, making it his own with a repertoire of useless jokes, professionally recorded jingles and Arnold, an imaginary barking dog. Most of Radio London’s DJ’s eventually went on to bigger and better things at the BBC, but the career move came about through a change of legislation by the then current Labour Government rather than by choice.

Tony’s second posting, Radio London. The MV Galaxy, moored in the North Sea

The General Post Office granted radio and television licences to the British Broadcasting Corporation and other independent television companies, but the pirates rode roughshod over this agreement by anchoring their vessels three and a half miles offshore in International waters. The government was determined to call a halt to their illegal activities and parliamentary debates ensued stating that the pirates presented a hazard to shipping and interfered with international radio wavelengths and emergency service frequencies. A couple of stations also misappropriated old World War 2 military installations, i.e. the sea forts of Shivering Sands, Radio City, in the Thames estuary and Red Sands, Radio Invicta, near Whitstable. The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, saw these incursions as good enough reasons to pull the plug. The incident that sealed their fate occurred on the evening of 20th June 1966 on Shivering Sands, home to Radio City which was owned by the promoter Reg Calvert. On the night in question, a group of henchmen, under the directions of one Major Oliver Smedley, joint owner of Radio Caroline South, stormed the old fort and took it off-air while demanding payment for a transmitter that had been supplied during aborted discussions on a merger. Wanting to cool the situation, Reg called round to the Major’s home a couple of days later to try to resolve the issue. Before Reg could smooth over their differences, Smedley blasted the hapless promoter with a shotgun. The ensuing trial was a farce, evidence in Calvert’s favour was suppressed and Smedley, by pleading self-defence, was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. A murder was enough justification to spur Wilson into action by instructing the then Post Master General, Anthony Wedgewood Benn, to draw up plans to silence the pirates once and for all. However, Benn was an advocate of free speech and was uneasy with the new law. Wilson, aware of Benn’s concerns, had a reshuffle and appointed Eric Short in his place, whose first job was to draw up the Marine Offences Bill. The new bill sailed through the House of Commons with a large majority and came in to force at midnight on 14th July 1967. The pirates systematically closed down, apart from Caroline, which struggled on for a further twelve months before falling silent with huge debts brought on by a loss of advertising revenue.

Poster for the 2009 Richard Curtis film The Boat That Rocked

The Richard Curtis film from 2009, The Boat That Rocked, gives a romanticised and not too accurate insight into life as a pirate. The no girls rule and cold, cramped conditions left a lot to be desired, particularly during a raging force nine gale when the ships would rock ‘n’ roll violently back and forth. To stop the needle sliding across the records, the DJ’s would tape a two bob bit to the stylus arm to give it more weight. On one occasion in early 1966, the Mi Amigo broke its moorings and ran aground off Frinton while being battered by ferocious waves. The coastguard, who were on the beach, fired a rocket onto the deck of the ship and secured a Breeches Buoy so as the crew and DJ’s, including Tony, could be hoisted ashore. It certainly wasn’t all plain sailing.

To fill the void, the BBC re-negotiated a tripling of needle time with the MU (needle time was created by the Musicians Union to restrict the amount of recorded music that could be broadcast by the BBC) giving them more leeway to spin the latest hits. The BBC also re-jigged their networks by establishing a new pop channel, Radio One and renaming the old Light Programme, Radio Two. Tony launched Radio One at 7.00 AM on Saturday 30th September 1967 with a jingle, his Breakfast Show theme tune, “Beefeaters” by Johnny Dankworth, and “Flowers in the Rain” by The Move. With a lack of competition and good coverage all over Britain, unlike the patchy pirate transmissions, the new station became an instant success. Tony’s fortunes blossomed as he crossed over to television, becoming a co-host on Top of the Pops and a year later fronting his own show, Time for Blackburn, on the ITV network.

In October 1967 Tony signed a new recording deal with the major American label MGM and released Goffin and King’s, “So Much Love”. The single enjoyed healthy sales due to its exposure on the Val Doonican Show and Juke Box Jury, but its progress was stymied just as it was about to break into the top thirty when supplies dried up due to a strike at the pressing plant. The follow up, “She’s My Girl”, came and went unnoticed, as did an album, Tony Blackburn Sings, which, according to some uncharitable colleagues, should have come with a question mark after the title. A further single, “It’s Only Love”, with its derivative melody nicked from the children’s song “This Old Man”, scraped into the top fifty and concluded his association with MGM. Later in the year he released a one off 45 for Polydor, “Blessed Are The Lonely” and a self-titled album which contained a cover version of Doris Troy’s “I’ll Do Anything (Anything She Wants Me to Do)”. Nine years later the song popped up on a Northern Soul reissue label as the B side of The Flirtations “Little Darling (I Need You)”. Credited to Lenny Gamble, it basked in the glory of the far superior A side while becoming a favourite at the Wigan Casino, much to Tony’s amusement, who was initially unaware of the record’s existence and the belated consternation of soul fans when they discovered the true identity of Mr. Gamble.

Tony Blackburn and Tessa Wyatt pictured circa 1973

In the early seventies Tony married the actress Tessa Wyatt after a whirlwind romance and fathered a son, Simon. He also moved to RCA and foisted four more singles onto the general public; the poptastic “Is It Me, Is It You”, the excruciating Chinn and Chapman composition “Chop Chop”, the vapid “Paper Song” and, according to the publicity blurb, “The new Congo-rocking single”, “Cindy”, with its steel drum accompaniment and calypso beat.

June 1973 heralded a revamp at the BBC in which Tony’s breakfast show was handed to Noel Edmonds, an appointment that soured relations between the pair for years. A gradual thawing of hostilities in the nineties occurred with Tony’s regular appearances on Edmunds Saturday night TV show Noel’s House Party, where he became a figure of fun by having a door continually slammed in his face. Tony and his sidekick Arnold, the virtual canine, were now ensconced in the mid-morning spot, but it didn’t detract from his pulling power as he still attracted over twenty million listeners a day. However, all was not well at home. As his marriage failed, Tony aired his emotional state on the radio, repeatedly dedicating weepies to his former wife who had taken up with her co-star in the TV sitcom Robin’s Nest, Richard O’Sullivan. Depressed and reliant on Valium, Tony attracted much criticism from the media, prompting the BBC to move him to an afternoon slot. Tony’s recording career was also on the skids, not that it ever really took off, as his next single, “Fairy Tales”, was aimed squarely at the kids market. For future releases he resorted to using aliases such as Big Daddy and the Sugarcanes and The Brandy Snaps.

During the eighties, his gradual slide at the BEEB continued when he lost his afternoon show to Andy Peebles, a DJ who started his career in Bournemouth spinning discs at Samantha’s discotheque after attending a Hotel Management course at the Bournemouth College of Technology. As a sop, Tony was handed the Sunday chart rundown vacated by Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman and Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewarts Saturday morning show, Junior Choice. (Incidentally, Stewart died at the Royal Bournemouth General Hospital in January 2016 after suffering a stroke, he was living in New Milton at the time). Publicly he put on a brave face, but privately he was upset. An olive branch, of sorts, came his way in 1982 when BBC Radio London awarded him a weekday afternoon show, but the format didn’t suit him as his guests were more interested in plugging their latest products than letting the DJ spin his discs. As an alternative, Tony floated a new concept called Sex n’ Soul, mixing soul music with a slightly risqué phone in segment where he flirted with his listeners. The producers bought into the idea and it proved to be a big hit. The concept also translated well to a live environment, when he took his ‘Soul Night Out’ on the road. Tony was in his element dressing up in ridiculous costumes and acting the fool, while playing his beloved soul music to an appreciative audience.

In September 1984, seventeen years after launching Radio One, he was dumped by the BBC altogether. As a parting shot, he closed his final show with “Flowers in the Rain” by The Move. Four years later Radio London also pulled the plug as part of a revamp. Tony kept busy working for a host of regional stations, including London’s Jazz FM, Capital Gold, Classic Gold, Smooth Radio KMFM in Kent and Magic AM in the north. In 2002, he was crowned ‘King of the Jungle’ on the first ever series of the reality show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, by beating off a motley crew of B-list celebrities including Darren Day, Christine Hamilton, Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, Nell McAndrew and Uri Geller.

In a surprise move, his career came full circle in November 2010 when he returned to the BBC to take over Pick of the Pops from Dale Winton. Four years later he received the prestigious Gold Award to mark his fiftieth year in broadcasting at the ‘Radio Academy Awards’, the first time the honour had been bestowed twice as he received an award in 1989 to mark his twenty-fifth year.

In the fallout from the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse enquiry, his reputation was tainted when he was sacked by the BBC. The director general, Tony Hall, claimed Tony failed to comply with an element of a report which centred on a historic incident involving a fifteen-year-old dancer on Top of the Pops who later committed suicide. Tony denied any wrongdoing and stated he had been “hung out to dry” and “made a scapegoat” for the companies own failings. He was not implicated in the report for any misconduct when it was finally published. Six months later an announcement from the BBC stated that Tony would return to the station in 2017 to take over the long-running Sounds of the 60s’ show from the retiring Brian Matthew and would host a new programme, The Golden Hour, on a Friday night. He had been vindicated.

Tony Blackburn 'My Haven'
Tony at home surrounded by mementos including his first Hofner guitar (Photograph Daily Mail)

Tony married Debbie Thomson, a theatrical agent and former dancer, in June 1992 (they met in 1982 when the pair starred in panto together) and lives happily in Arkley, Hertfordshire. The couple have a daughter, Victoria. Love him or loathe him, Tony has been a mainstay of British radio for over fifty years and is one of the few DJ’s from the sixties still on air. A lifelong vegetarian and non-smoker, he’s been regularly ridiculed for his cheesy delivery and lampooned by Paul Whitehead and Harry Enfield, along with Alan Freeman, in their Smashie and Nicey sketches, but he is the first one to see the funny side. The complete antithesis to John Peel, his music taste sits firmly in the pop camp and his first love, soul. Anybody who prefers Bobby Vee to The Beatles, Perry Como to Elvis and Alvin Stardust to David Bowie will never like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band.

Tony Blackburn will not be remembered for his singing career but, if for some reason you would like to hear all his recordings collected together on one compilation, feel free to dip into the CD, The Singles Collection 1965–1980. As Tony notes in a typical tongue-in-cheek manner in the sleeve notes, “I have been led to believe some copies of my singles have been changing hands for as much as twenty pence a time. This is my gift to the nation, so sit back, relax and enjoy”.

Tony Blackburn Singles Collection 2012
Tony Blackburn Discography
 Singles

Don’t Get off That Train c/w Just to Be with You Again: Fontana (TF562) 1965

Is There Another Way to Love You c/w Here Today Gone Tomorrow: Fontana (TF601) 1965

Green Light c/w Winter is Through: Fontana (TF729) 1966

So Much Love c/w In the Night: MGM (MGM 1375) 1968

She’s My Girl c/w Closer to a Dream: MGM (MGM 1394) 1968

It’s Only Love c/w Janie: MGM (MGM 1467) 1969

Blessed Are The Lonely c/w Wait For Me: Polydor (56360) 1969

Little Darling (I Need You) c/w I’ll Do Anything (Anything She Wants Me to Do): Casino Classic (CC1) 1978 A side The Flirtations B side Tony as Lenny Gamble

Is It Me, Is It You c/w Happy: RCA (RCA 2067) 1971

Chop Chop c/w If You Were a Dream: RCA (RCA 2109) 1971

Paper Song c/w Money Don’t Make a Man: RCA (RCA 2180) 1972

Cindy c/w Dusty: RCA (RCA 2247) 1972

Fairy Tales c/w Arnold: Decca (FR 13570) 1975

Tomorrow Night c/w Tomorrow Night: (Version): RCA (PB 5025) 1977 as Big Daddy and the Sugarcanes

Christmas Time c/w Reggae Christmas: DJS (10960) 1980 as The Brandy Snaps

I Am A Cider Drinker c/w Combine Harvester: EMI Gold (3926532) 2007 Charity single with The Wurzels

Albums

Tony Blackburn Sings: MGM (C8062) 1968

Tony Blackburn: Polydor (583082) 1969

Tony Blackburn: RCA International (INTS 1407) 1972

The Singles Collection 1965–1980: Cherry Red (COLLCD1) 2012 CD compilation

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