Interview: Dr. Bob Jones

From the DJ History archive: Bill Brewster chats to the veteran British DJ about his ’60s jazz roots, the rise of soul all-dayers and the early London house scene

Dr. Bob Jones is one of British dance music’s longest serving selectors. A key part of the UK’s soul and jazz dance scenes since the start of the 1970s, he played an integral role in the rise of soul and jazz-funk in the south of England in the latter half of the 1970s. By the time he was recruited to play at the Caister Soul Weekender in 1979, Jones was already a successful DJ in his hometown of Chelmsford, with regular club appearances to his name across Essex and the Greater London area.

As the Southern weekender and jazz-funk all-dayer scene went into decline in the mid-1980s, he embraced the soulful side of house music, earning criticism from some of the more diehard dancers within the soul underground. At the same time, he began a long residency in the “Connoisseurs Corner” room at the Southport Weekender. Jones moved into production in 1990, successfully remixing the Temptations “The Jones” for Motown. He later set up the Chillifunk label with fellow DJ Lofty, co-producing numerous East West Connection records for the imprint.

In September 2002, Jones sat down with Bill Brewster to talk about his career to date, legendary Greater London venues of the 1960s and ’70s, and the rise of the Caister Soul Weekender.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Essex. I was born in Chelmsford and spent most of my life there, up until about 30 or 31. My misspent youth in the ’60s was spent listening to what were mainly white groups playing black music. Even local bands were playing black music – covers of “Night Train,” that sort of thing. There was a dancehall in Chelmsford called Corn Exchange where at weekends they used to have bands like Zoot Money, Georgie Fame and The Animals. I saw Hendrix play there. They also had a load of American blues singers like John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson.

My upbringing was basically quite black. I had two older sisters. One, Linda, used to go out and about to things like Ready, Steady, Go and places like that. She had a friend who got her tickets. I went there twice when I was 14 or 15 and I saw Otis Redding and James Brown live. There’d be two bedroom doors in the house; through one, June’s, I’d be hearing “What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?” by Emile Ford & The Checkmates. Through the other door, Linda would be playing Otis Spann, Little Willie John and stuff like that.

Emile Ford & The Checkmates – What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?

There were also bands at my local youth centre. There was The Healers, who were half made up of USAF guys and British musicians. They’d knock out cover versions of the latest Sam & Dave. But I didn’t know they were covers. For all intents and purposes I thought they wrote this music, until one day they said they were going to play Jimmy Smith’s “Back at the Chicken Shack” and I was like, “I thought you wrote it?” Then I went on the search for Jimmy Smith albums and rhythm and blues-oriented jazz.

My father was a piano player – not by profession, he worked in a factory, but as a hobby, he’d be knocking out pub tunes. One day he asked me why all of the albums I owned had black people on the cover. It wasn’t a racist thing; he just wanted to know why. I said, “It’s just a feeling, I get more out of listening to Otis Redding than I do Cliff Richard. I can’t explain it; it’s just what I feel.”

Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack

He bought me “Back at the Chicken Shack” by Jimmy Smith on Blue Note. He said, “Why don’t you get into this?” I was like, “Aww, I’ve been after this!” So around 1970-71 I started diving off into Lou Donaldson and stuff like that. Rhythm and blues-influenced jazz. Most of the Blue Note albums had the same musicians, anyway, a bit like the CTI or Kadoo catalogues.

During the ’60s, did you go to places like the Flamingo?

Yeah, I went to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go and the Flamingo. The first time I went to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go was to see Herbie Goins and the Nightimers. It stuck in my mind, because they’d never been to the Corn Exchange. But they blew me away. Big lineup, black vocalist, horn section.

What was Whiskey-A-Go-Go like then?

The Flamingo was downstairs and the Whiskey-A-Go-Go was upstairs. The Whiskey-A-Go-Go, out of the two, was a bit more accessible. The Flamingo was very black, dark and full of dodgy looking people, but also very smart, because everybody dressed up in those days. The Whiskey was a bit more accessible. It was lively and the music was a cross between the occasional live band and the best of what was coming out of Jamaica and America.

There were quite a lot of black American serviceman going to the Flamingo, weren’t there?

Exactly. Both clubs were where a lot of Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans felt comfortable. Partially because there were a lot of other blacks there, but also because they could identify with the music being played there. It was a style thing as well. It was all about fashion, music, a meeting place, people smoked. But it was still underground.

The DJ wasn't important. I never envisaged that you might make a living from this.

When you went to the Flamingo, they had DJs, but they were really just a prelude to the bands, weren’t they?

Yes. They played before [the live acts] and during the interval. It was the same at the Corn Exchange. There would always be a support band and a main act. The DJ at the Corn Exchange was behind the stage, so you couldn’t even see him! The DJ just wasn’t important. I collected black music as a hobby. I never envisaged that you might make a living from this. I left school and became an apprentice electrical engineer.

What sort of bands did you see at the Whiskey and Flamingo?

Root and Jenny Jackson. He’s Omar and Vanessa Simon’s uncle, he came over on the Windrush. He was also in a band called FBI. There was another guy who was an American serviceman, Ronnie Jones and The Bluejays. He was slick, very good. And, of course, there was Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band.

Jimmy James?

Yeah, Jimmy James & The Vagabonds. There was also the Graham Bond Organisation, who had Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. I used to follow the Who around. Before they brought out “I Can’t Explain,” they would play cover versions of R&B records. I used to go to the Wealdstone Hotel and see them play. It was a great time.

I remember Ronnie Jones playing at the Corn Exchange one time and he said, “I’ve got a very good friend of mine, just over from the States, would you please welcome Pat Arnold!” And it was P.P. Arnold! Six months later, she got that Immediate [Records] contract. She was a former Ikettes member, wasn’t she?

I used to go and see Fleetwood Mac, too, and became quite good friends with John McVie. When we used to go to the Corn Exchange and my mate would say, “There’s a couple of birds over there, I’ll go chat that one up and you can talk to that one,” I’d be like, “Sorry, mate, gotta ask the bass player where he got that lick from!” Seriously. I was terrible. My mates would say, “Don’t go out with Bob – your chances of pulling are nil and he’ll spend more time talking to the organist!”

So when you left school, you did your apprenticeship and got a full time job?

Yeah, I worked for the Eastern Electricity Board, based in Chelmsford. I served an apprenticeship from ’67 to ’71 and worked full time for about eight years after that. I serviced big power stations. Where I lived, around Melbourne in the northwest of Chelmsford, there was a pub called the Red Beret that I used to go in. That’s where I started doing a mobile [DJ] residency every Thursday night after work. I did that from about ’68 to about ’71.

After the Red Beret there was one other place in town where you could go and get a drink, so two or three of us used to tramp down to this club called Deejays. Basic place, held about 200, soundsystem had a limiter even in those days. But it had an atmosphere. The guvnor came up to me and said that one of his residents had let him down. Could I do Friday night? This was beginning of ’71. At this stage, I’d built up a collection of things like Darryl Banks “Open The Door To Your Heart” and Little Hank “Mister Bang Bang Man," which are now classed as Northern Soul, but were just soul records to me then.

Little Hank – Mr Bang Bang Man

After I did that single night, I didn’t think it went well, because people kept asking for chart records. They asked you to do two slow sets, because the club was open from eight until two. So you did one slow set about 11-11:30 and another about 1-1:30. But they liked it and asked if I would do it every week. I was there from 1971 until about 1978. When he offered me a residency, I played from eight until two and I think I got £15 for the gig. It was a laugh. They let in all the local hoods, so it could be a bit like Gunfight At The O.K. Corral. You know, you’d duck and a bottle would hit the wall! Basically, I had to go and buy the pop records of the day and then I’d gradually filter in the good stuff in between it. You’ve got to remember that Motown and Stax were quite underground in those days, so you could play “My Girl” during the slow section, but you wouldn’t get away with something like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

I had this mate Max, who was mixed race, a real hip dude, with clothes and music. His brother ended up being singer in Animal Nightlife later on. Anyway, he was well ahead with music and he brought this record in one time. He handed it to me and says, “This is massive in America.” It was George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby.” To me it was the start of the disco era.

By this stage I realised I could get imports so I used to travel up to Harlequin Records. They had one in Berwick Street. They’d have a little import section. The same with Blues & Soul [Records] – I used to go up to their shop in Hanway Street, roughly above where Johnny Chandler’s Division One shop was. I used to go up there with my little lists. I’d listen to the radio and there was a guy on Radio London called Dave Symmonds and Charlie Gillett was on air, too, with a programme called Honky Tonk. He put me on to Joe Simon.

There was another guy called Mike Raven. He was a British guy, and he also used to double up for Christopher Lee in Hammer horror movies, too! He was a bit of a dark character. He was a white guy and he dressed in black. He had a programme on radio, it might have been on national radio actually, but it was totally black music. You’d hear things like Bessie Banks with her version of “Go Now,” which up until then I’d thought the Moody Blues’ was the original.

Bessie Banks – Go Now

When was first time you came across Chris Hill?

A friend of mine called Paul Gratuoux, who lived in Essex. I befriended him through a shop we both used to go in called Ecstasy Records. Paul used to do a bit of DJing in the northern part of Essex and he asked me if I’d ever been to the Orsett Cock or Goldmine. I’d seen little ads in Blues & Soul but I’d never been. Chris used to do a pure import night on a Monday and people used to get dressed up for it. And he’d do a Motown night on a Thursday or Friday. Jeff Young used to be his back-up DJ.

First time I went was on a Monday, must have been early ’70s, because people were wearing suits and you’d get these black guys coming down from East London, with these canes, spats and gloves – real dandified. They were so cool. They’d know all the latest dances. One of the early big records down there was “Jive Talking” by the Bee Gees, but because it sounded black no one really worried about the fact that it was the Bee Gees.

Around ’73 or ’74 I’d started to play the odd jazz tune down there. You know, Chick Corea or Lou Donaldson, CTI or Kudu stuff. Chris was much more of a showman and leant much more towards the flamboyant stuff, especially when disco came in. So he’d play Tavares “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel.” He’d play the odd jazz thing, too; he broke Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” there and also “Milestones” by Miles Davis.

Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder

In Chelmsford I was playing fusion and jazz-funk. Sometimes it would clear the dancefloor, sometimes it wouldn’t. My mate Mac came up to me one day with a 12". It was Miroslav Vitous. First time I played it, everybody went, “What the fuck?” One of the local hoods came up to me and said, “Bob, we love your music, but this is shit.” I persevered, I kept it in my box, but it was the bassline that intrigued me. But on the jazz scene tunes like Jimmy Smith’s “The Cat” were massive. That was a big Mod tune, too. Then British Wool used it on an ad on the telly.

Between ’73 and ’77 was brilliant from my point of view. Although Chelmsford wasn’t as forward thinking as London, it confirmed my belief that there was this other scene: the sort of urban-suburban scene. That Essex, Kent, Sussex, South of England scene helped set the scene for the weekenders, the Soul Mafia and the roots of what is Gilles Peterson’s scene now.

How did the weekender thing come about?

There was a series of clubs: the Rio in Didcot, Frenchies in Camberley, the Goldmine in Canvey Island. I’m not sure if Flicks in Dartford was around then.

There were two all-dayers that came before the weekenders, one at Reading and one at Purley. Not sure which came first, though I think it might have been Reading. All these clubs that were in Essex, Sussex and Kent, they got them together under one roof and did this soul all-dayer at Reading. I organised a mini-bus from Chelmsford. And I sort of knew Chris Hill because we used to go to this shop in Ilford that did imports. We’re talking ’76 or ’77.

Chris said to me one day, “I might need you to help me out.” He had two residencies at the time, at the Goldmine and at the Southgate Royalty, where they’d put Froggy’s soundsystem.

But it [the Weekender] was Robbie Vincent’s idea. He went to Adrian Webb, who managed the Southgate Royalty and said he’d had this idea. He did these other weekenders for Radio 1 at a holiday camp in Great Yarmouth. They were retro weekenders – Robbie used to play at them, because he initially was a rock DJ. His show on Radio London, originally, the first hour was West Coast rock, and then black music in the second hour, but it gradually took over the whole show.

So Adrian Webb formed a company called Showstoppers and the rest is history. But the reason why Chris mentioned it to me was that I wasn’t involved in Caisters one and two, which were in April and November of 1979. They wanted myself, Jeff Young, Pete Tong, Mick Clark. We were like the up-and-coming [DJs]. Chris wanted me to do the Goldmine for him while he was at Caister and Southgate Royalty on the Friday.

At the first Caister, they got about 600-800 there. The second grew to 1,200. The following year, they did four [events]. One at the beginning of April, one at the end, then one at the beginning of October and one at the beginning of November. And the two end ones, it was the B team: myself, Mick Clark, Micky Peck, Pete Tong and Jeff Young. So we were employed at Caister three and five. I played in what became known as the Jazz Room. You had Shaun French playing at a club in Bognor called Dantes, while Greg Edwards was doing his show and things at the Lyceum. The whole thing just gelled.

People would go to the weekenders and stick in the jazz room, because the main room crowd became a bit of a monster.

All the tribes were around then, too: Brixton Frontline, Sax Maniacs, Ovalteenies from Luton. In the main room, you’d hear “Oops Upside Your Head” and ‘We Are Family,” whereas in the back room, it’d be a mixture of Northern [Soul], funk, jazz-funk, anything alternative to what was going on in the main room.

Towards Caister 15 or 16 there was almost this animosity between the Jazz Room crowd and the main hall crowd. People would go to the event and stick in the jazz room, because the main room crowd became a bit of a monster: shaving foam, very beery. It wasn’t drugs. Drugs never really entered into it, really. Showstoppers went on to take punters abroad. They did a week’s holiday in St. Tropez. It was in caravans, though, not hotels, so it wasn’t as posh as it sounds!

What happened when you first heard house, because there were huge splits, weren’t there?

Totally. The rumblings came about before that, though. About Caister 18 or 19 things started to get a bit sour. For want of a better word, greed started setting in and we were getting disheartened with it. Chris Hill rang me up and said there was a meeting. This was about ’83 or ’84. Showstoppers split up, because there had been three of them – Adrian, Roger Dance, Johnny Morris – and Adrian and Johnny had had a row. Adrian called everybody together and said he was going to form another company and he had a gig lined up in Bognor Regis, at Butlins. He said he wanted to bring new people in, and he brought in Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker, Gilles Peterson and Colin Hudd.

Because Colin was one of my best friends at the time, I knew the sort of stuff they’d be playing. He was resident at Flicks in Dartford then and in that period he was playing early electro and stuff like that. I was a bit of a purist, but I always had an open mind and I might buy a few things even if I didn’t play them out.

Around ’87 I was still on Atlantic’s mailing list and I got a copy of CeCe Rogers “Someday” and it was a turning point. It was really soulful, but it had this backbeat that I wasn’t used to. There was a split in the clouds.

CeCe Rogers – Someday (12" Club Mix)

Going up to 1990 people like [Simon] Dunmore wouldn’t have anything to do with house, even Gilles – he hated it tremendously. I played at Dingwalls and I played a garage record. Lew Kirton and Sam Dees were on the bill, so it was a real soul purists’ gig. But I thought I can’t be arsed with Jesse James “If You Wanna Love Affair” and these 200 [other] records that you’re almost expected to play. I mean, they’re great records but it’s almost like playing on autopilot.

I was getting sent stuff like CeCe Rogers and Drizabone so I started playing stuff like that. We were also buying Italian records like Arthur Miles “Helping Hand.” I was buying early house tunes on Irma and getting slagged for doing it by the boys. There was a definite split between those doing drugs and those who didn’t. At a soul boy gig, they might smoke a joint, but they wouldn’t take pills, certainly nothing hallucinogenic.

What was your involvement at Sabresonic. You played there, didn’t you?

Well, I started doing gigs for Phil Perry and Danny Rampling was a friend. Through going to Shoom I met Andrew Weatherall and also Terry Farley. Nicky [Holloway] was also putting on weekenders in Bognor Regis. It was one room, and ecstasy had arrived, although not a lot of people knew much about it. They’d just come back from that summer in Ibiza, I think. At that gig, I always remember there was a certain crowd I used to be wary of: Gary Haisman, Andrew Weatherall, and there was little guy in glasses and I used to think he was a bit of a hard nut: Terry Farley. No, really. I used to say, “See that lot over there: they’re a bit dodgy, Chelsea boot boys.” Terry came up to me and said, “Oi, you! You’re, er, you’re Bob Jones aren’t you? I ’eard you play the Carstairs’s ‘It Really Hurts Me Girl’ – put it on!” Then we became mates after that.

The Carstairs – It Really Hurts Me Girl

That’s how I befriended Andrew. Sav Remzi was running a club called the Red Eye in Streatham and he’d get Andrew to play there, and he’d book me. But Andrew wanted us to do it together. I think we did it twice. He said, “You play what you’re not known for, and I’ll play what I’m not known for.” He knew I collected trip-hop – although there wasn’t a name for it then – and I remember playing a Joey Beltram record on 33 instead of 45. So later on he booked me to play at Sabresonic and I was playing that same Joey Beltram record and everybody loved it!

At the same time as doing gigs for him, I used to do gigs for Coldcut, who were doing a Friday night at the Albany Empire. Going back to ’87 and ’88, I used to go down to Spectrum on a Monday night, because I’d known Paul [Oakenfold] when he was a plugger. People would come up and say, “But you’re a soul DJ aren’t you, what are you doing here?” At the time, the soul scene was getting a bit boring.

Do you think it’s sad that people of your generation couldn’t see that house had soul?

Well, they think of it as being soul-less. I think it’s sad. We’re in a privileged position of getting good new records early, but I’ve said to those guys before: you can’t depend on those 200 soul records forever. You’ll end up disappearing up your own record middle.

For a scene to thrive it’s got to have youth. And you’ve got to play music that will attract those youths. Sure, you can turn them on to those old records, by playing a Curtis Mayfield record that’s been sampled by Mary J. Blige. There’s no difference between the approach of Phil Asher and Nathan Haines to how Vincent Montana was doing things in the ’70s. Ironically, on the modern scene, they’re now playing stuff like “That’s The Way Love Is” and “Someday” and classing them as soul records. I’ve got a theory with some of these boys that it’s got to be old before they’ll appreciate it.

This interview was conducted in September 2002. © DJ History

By Bill Brewster on July 5, 2017

On a different note