The Gunnell Brothers

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Rik Gunnell: seen here with Georgie Fame

Richard
and John Gunnell were in the music promotion business. Rik & Johnny were well known on the sixties music scene and are often referred to in books and documentaries about 60's Swinging London. Rik learned his craft the hard way, from the ground up. He was heavily involved in the evolution of the Jazz scene in the 1950's, combining modern and traditional scenes and opening his own club.

Even in 1966, when Georgie Fame, his artist, was topping the charts for the second time, Gunnell could still be found outside the Flamingo, in London's Wardour Street, playing the tout, with a treble whisky-and-coke in his hand. In the club's basement, black and white people mingled to an extent unknown elsewhere in London in the 1960s. Judy Garland dropped in to the club's AllNighter, and Christine Keeler played off her lovers there.
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A veritable who's who of British rock and R&B appeared at the Flamingo not to mention a breathtaking list of American artists, including Stevie Wonder, Bill Haley, Patti LaBelle, John Lee Hooker and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The original showman, Gunnell conducted business in a rough-and-ready manner. Generous and foolhardy, he lost a chance to manage the Rolling Stones, turned his back on The Kinks - and oversaw one of the most vital periods in London's musical and social history.

He worked as a book-keeper at Smithfield market, spending his nights as a bouncer at Studio 51, a jazz club where the new bebop was played. He later spent time in Paris where he had taken part in fights in order to eat. Such behaviour set the pattern for a life on the edge in which good music, good times and booze coexisted with fantasy and lost opportunities.

It was when he met Tony Harris, manager at Leicester Square's Mapleton Hotel, that Gunnell successfully harnessed the potential audience for jazz. In 1955, with American fashion and style all the rage, the venue became an All-Nighter called Club Americana. Ten shillings admittance bought jazz and a three-course meal - tomato soup, chicken'n'chips and ice cream - and Rik introduced his younger brother Johnny Gunnell as disc jockey and MC.

Sam Kruger and his son Jeff had started the Flamingo there, but Gunnell pushed them out to open extra nights as Club M. Gunnell had become a serial entrepreneur. His other ventures included the Star in Wardour Street and Club Basic in Charing Cross Road.

In 1958, Harris and Gunnell made peace with The Krugers and launched the Friday & Saturday All-Nighter, with Johnny Gunnell booking the bands. The music was a mixture, but while musicians such as Brian Auger, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker played modern jazz, by the end of 1961 'The Twist' was in vogue. In 1962, they auditioned a young Georgie Fame, and the rest is history. The Blue Flames became the Flamingo's most popular draw.
"Georgie Fame and Zoot Money were handled by the late Rik Gunnell. Rik had the look of the gangster about him (to my 18-year-old eyes anyway!)...

....Flamingo club Friday All-Nighter sessions, in particular, were sensational. Lots of illicit booze and drugs plus interesting people like Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies."
Greg Tesser: Publicity
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Meanwhile, The Gunnell Brothers formed a management and booking agency at 47 Gerrard Street in partnership with Fame's saxophonist, Mick Eve. There they handled Chris Farlowe, John Mayall, Geno Washington, Zoot Money, PJ Proby and others.
"We stupidly ducked out of a Flamingo allnighter Xmas 1966, leaving Rik Gunnell in the lurch. Those of you who remember Rik & Johnny Gunnell will know what a bad idea that was. Shortly afterwards, we were shipped off to Milan."
Tim Large, Dave Anthony’s Moods
In January 1966 the brothers opened The Ramjam Club in Brixton High Road, where Otis Redding made his British début. Both the Animals and The Who played the club as favours to the Gunnells. When the Flamingo Club closed in 1967, Rik took over the Bag O'Nails in Kingly Street. The club was to become one of the most in-demand nightspots in Swinging London, and was popular with all four Beatles.
“My dad played blues all-nighters in the early 60s, at Wardour Street’s Flamingo Club. The owners, Rik and Johnny Gunnell, paid off the police every week so they could stay open until 6am, refilling regulars’ colas with illicit whiskey from under the bar.

When Georgie Fame had a hit with ‘Yeh Yeh’, he tried to switch management. Rick stole the keys to Georgie’s brand new Jaguar, and rammed its repeatedly into the pillars of an underground car park. He handed Georgie the keys back and said,
"If you leave me I’ll do the same to your fingers and you’ll never play the piano again!"
One night, some bruiser got drunk and caused trouble, so Rik threw him out of the club and gave him a hiding. At closing time, hoods grabbed Rik and bundled him, blindfold, into a car. They drove him to a deserted warehouse where 'The Krays' informed him that the drunkard was one of their lads. Sensing he was in trouble, Rik explained that the lout had been out of order. The Krays apologised and set Rik free."
Gaz Mayall: 2007
In the summer of 1968 the brothers promoted a two-day festival at Woburn Abbey, with head-liners including Jimi Hendrix, Donovan and Ten Years After. Gunnell awoke early in the morning to find the festival site ablaze. Fans, who had slept in the grounds overnight, had started the blaze to keep warm. The damage cost Gunnell nearly £20,000. At the year's end the Gunnells sold both the Bag O'Nails and their management firm to music impresario Robert Stigwood, and worked in association with him. Rik moved to New York to open an office for Stigwood there, and then later, on to Los Angeles for another.

In 1969 Gunnell's fiancée, Jean Lincoln, then one of Britain's youngest show business agents, was found dead in an apartment in Central Park, New York. At the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival (they were the promoters), Rik was moved to tears by the sight of half a million people holding hands while The Great Awakening play a haunting rendition of Amazing Grace. Soon after he quit the business for good, spending much of the '70s off the radar.

Meanwhile, Johnny Gunnell was procuring the agency interests of a group of young hopefuls from Wolverhampton. Although the circumstances are uncertain, John Gunnell signed up Ambrose Slade and introduced them to Chas Chandler. He was therefore instrumental in adding the final ingredient neccessary to make it all work.
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New Musical Express: October 18th 1969

In 1972 things fell apart, and Rik Gunnell vanished for six years. He started a new life away from the music business in Austria. John does not seem to appear anywhere after this time.

Rik died in Austria on 3rd June 2007 leaving his (third) wife, Edith and their two daughters Nina and Romy.
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Extracts from Rik Gunnell's obituary in The Guardian. Written by Val Wilmer

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

John Gunnell opened the New Astoria Charing Cross Road in the late eighties which lasted for a few years.

Julia Ind said...

I was engaged to John Gunnell for a short time in 1967, what a time that was. Spoke with him briefly when he was living in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Wonder where he is now?

Meleesa said...

Yes, whatever happened to Johnny Gunnell and Marie O'Sullivan, his main squeeze in 1963/64?

Derek Lyons said...

John Gunnell was my friend in the mid 1980's. We met in the Slug and Lettuce, Islington Green. He lived in Chris Farlowe's flat which he took over above a Record store next to The Screen on the Green. We found out he was also my late fathers partner Peter Lyons ( Pete the Pill). Dad was involved in the Profumo Affair,the Krays,The Richardsons who wanted him to work with them all. My dad looked after Georgie Fame. I worked for John for one night at the Astoria at an event called Arena! I was the MC and stage manager.I really liked John, his favourite drink was Noilly Prat a French drink. I hope to meet up with John soon, miss his humour! Funny I worked in the music biz in the late 70's, knew the Who. Met Georgie Fame. And the late Matt Monro who was a childhood friend of my dad! Small World!

Anonymous said...

I worked for Rik Gunnell in his pub The Londoner in Austria in the 1980s. What a character he was, and what a drinker! I never realised he was so well known until he died. I will never forget him falling off his bar stool and being carried home most nights. He was a great bloke, scary at times, but very kind hearted. I wont forget him.

Colin Richardson said...

I also knew Rik & John back in the '60s and worked as a booker at the Agency from September 1966 until December 1967. These were 'frontier days' in the music biz and many sailed close to the boundaries of what was 'legal' and 'illegal'. I enjoyed my time there and considered John a friend at the time. The last I heard was in the '80s, by which time I had left the music biz and was living in Gloucestershire. I got a phone call out of the blue one day...it was John. Opening line was: "WTF are you doing in West Gloucestershire?!" We chatted for a while and he said he was in Brighton, managing Miller Anderson. That was the last time I heard anything from him. Often wonder whether he's still around somewhere, wheeling and dealing!
Colin Richardson
Anyone interested in a few anecdotes from those heady days of the '60 and '70s might take a look at my blog (if that's alright with the management here :-) It's:
colinrichardsonjazz.typepad.com

Mickey P. said...

That's fine with 'The Management' Colin! ;-)

Some great stories in the comments here. Interesting reading guys, thanks for the memories.

Lindsey Jones said...

I worked for Rick back in the early 1980's and what a fun time that was. And yes it is true Rick did fall of his "perch" at least once a week, and yes the saying "call me a cab" was always replyed by us staff ..."ok, Rick, you are a cab". I was 29 years old back then and now I'm 60, but those days seem like yesterday.
So very sorry that Rick died as he was a wonderful employer and looked after us like a father.

Anonymous said...

What a fabulous blast from the past ... John Gunnell is my step-father, I'll be sure to forward this link!