RIP Count Suckle, London Soundsystem Pioneer

The UK soundsystem pioneer, remembered by David Katz

Count Suckle, who died on May 19th, was one of a handful of early pioneers that helped Jamaican music gain a foothold in Britain. As a sound system owner, nightclub proprietor, and record label boss, Suckle’s efforts to promote the music of his native land were truly multifaceted, gaining him the revered status of a legend in reggae circles.

Although his remaining contemporaries will recall the glory days of his sound system during the late 1950s, most Londoners will remember Count Suckle best for his longstanding ownership of the Q Club, one of black London’s most noteworthy venues during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

He was born Willbert Augustus Campbell in Kingston circa 1931, and was one of four children. The nickname Suckle came from his mother because – when she tried to wean him as an infant, he refused to take bottled milk – and continued to demand to suckle at her breast. His mother sold fruit and vegetables in Kingston, and also sold cooked food there. His father was a farmer from rural St Mary.

In the years following World War II Jamaican entrepreneurs – after travelling to the USA for seasonal farm work – began establishing sound systems to play records at outdoor dance events, modelled on what they had encountered at block parties and street dances held by black Americans in the southern states. American rhythm and blues thus became the most popular style in Jamaica during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and Campbell was one of the young men that began supplying local sound systems with American records he purchased from the visiting sailors that would frequent the brothels of downtown Kingston. (He later made use of the mail order services of Randy’s Records of Gallatin, Tennessee, after hearing their advertisements on radio broadcasts that could be picked up in Jamaica late at night.) Tom the Great Sebastian and Count Nick the Champ were two of the more noteworthy early Jamaican sound systems that directly benefitted from the records that Campbell supplied, the former becoming the most popular set on the island partly through Campbell’s efforts.

The trio remained in the hold of the ship for days, surviving by eating green bananas.

Like many of his generation, Campbell understood that the chance for betterment was slim in Jamaica, with its high unemployment rates and limited industry. Thus, in 1952, he stowed away to London on a banana boat, along with his friends Lenny Fry and Vincent Forbes, the latter a noted selector for Tom The Great Sebastian. The trio remained in the hold of the ship for days, surviving by eating green bananas before emerging to present themselves to the ship’s captain, knowing it would be too difficult for the craft to turn back.

By 1955, Forbes established the first sound system in Britain (which was christened Duke Vin in reference to Duke Reid, Jamaica’s largest sound system of the day), and shortly thereafter, Campbell established the second, Count Suckle’s sound system, which became Forbes’ closest rival. Both were based in Ladbroke Grove, west London, and since most local nightclubs routinely barred black people from entry, Vin and Suckle began holding “blues dance” parties in the basements and front-rooms of local homes.

Unfortunately, the area was rapidly becoming a flashpoint of tension between white working class locals and the growing black immigrant population. Indeed, one night in 1958, when Campbell was playing his sound system at a house on Lancaster Road, gangs of white youth firebombed the premises, forcing Suckle and his attendees to head to the rooftop until the police and fire brigade arrived.

Suckle’s fortunes increased dramatically on July 1961, when an African percussionist who played in the house band at the Roaring Twenties, a basement dive on Carnaby Street in London’s West End, invited Suckle to play his sound system there for a party celebrating American Independence Day. Suckle unleashed unheard American rhythm and blues and the totally unknown ska productions of Prince Buster and Duke Reid, which thrilled the crowd, leading to a longstanding nightly residency for Suckle.

Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones often attended the club, while members of the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles also passed through.

After complaining to the club’s management about the usual discriminative door policy, the crowd at the Roaring Twenties became extremely mixed, with a large proportion of Caribbean immigrants joining the local mods and British and European female clientele on the dance floor. Keyboardist Georgie Fame was a regular member of the house band, and future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones often attended the club, while members of the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles also passed through. Suckle also hosted visiting Jamaican performers, including popular singer Owen Gray.

Discouraged by the regular police raids which saw black patrons of the club being brutalised, in 1964, Suckle left the Roaring Twenties to open his own Q Club in another basement dive, this time located close to Paddington railway station. In the Q Club’s early days, Suckle presented concerts by Prince Buster and members of the Skatalites, and a young Elton John was a steady employee, earning a wage for regular one hour performances. In 1970, Suckle established the related Q label, a Trojan Records subsidiary, which showcased work by local reggae act Freddie Notes and the Rudies, one of the club’s resident bands, as well as singer Jimmy Lindsay and Suckle’s own attempts as a vocalist, but the label folded after issuing only a handful of 45s.

Count Suckle – Please Don’t Go

The club itself, which was open seven days a week until 4 or 5 AM, was alternately known as the Cue Club in reference to the snooker hall that was formerly housed there, and had a restaurant on site. It featured soul performers such as Edwin Starr as early as 1967, but during the 1970s, soul became the venue’s primary focus, especially on Thursday nights. Featured live performers at the venue included Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder.

Unique at the time as a black-owned venue in London, it also catered to a mixed crowd, but was deemed far more “hip” and “upmarket” compared to the other venues that catered to black Londoners, such as the Four Aces, All Nations, or the Bouncing Ball. The club – then known as the People’s Club – finally closed down in 1986 when the lease expired, and Suckle retired, but Gus Berger’s 2008 film Duke Vin, Count Suckle And The Birth Of Ska rightly heralded the man’s important contribution to the establishment and acceptance of Jamaican music in Britain.

By David Katz on May 29, 2014

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