Jeffrey Kruger, who died in May 2014, will forever be remembered in the music business as one of its true entrepreneurs – the man who created The Flamingo, London’s premier British modern jazz club off Leicester Square, and Ember Records which he owned and ran successfully as an independent label in the years of an industry dominated by the giants of EMI, Decca, Philips and Pye. I interviewed him at his home near Brighton, where Pink Flamingo statues adorned the driveway.
When I was starting out in the early 1950’s, EMI had the monopoly, though that word was never allowed to be mentioned. There were five of them as I recall: Decca, EMI, Philips, Pye, and then Oriole.
The bottom line is I never had any intention of going into the record business. I was basically the owner of the most successful club in Europe called The Flamingo. It started with jazz and went on to develop of what they called rock artists, rhythm and blues, ska, reggae, with all night sessions. It started the careers of people from Deep Purple to Eric Clapton when he was one of the members of a group with Rod Stewart who was never allowed to sing at the time, and a little guy from Pinner playing piano who changed his name to Elton John…who would beg to play piano…or Jimi Hendrix walking in and me introducing him to Chas Chandler who happened to be playing with the Animals that night. So all of that was my real interest, because it was the big money earner for me.
Artists were being recorded there, weren’t they? I remember R&B at the Flamingo.
It was the ‘in’ place, and later on The Marquee
What prompted it?
I was a piano player and a pretty good one, but I didn’t know it. Every time I heard jazz artists – I was into the big bands, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Basie, Jimmy Lunceford – I never knew if they were black or white. All I had were the 78’s of a cousin of mine. I couldn’t afford to buy records and my parents couldn’t afford to buy a gramophone. But I used to play a piano and I played in little groups, but I was then in the film business, selling films, and used to go down to Studio 51 or the Feldman Swing Club which were the two trad/modern clubs, depending on which night you were there. I wasn’t a snob but I was working for Columbia Pictures and I saw the better things in life. My parents worked damned hard for me and my sisters, so I appreciated a good restaurant even if I couldn’t afford it – I knew what was nice and what was not nice. When I first walked down into the Feldman club there was for me a smell, a basement smell, damp. The music was great but I couldn’t take the atmosphere. Until I went to Studio 51 which was even worse, that was as near the drains as anything. But again, the music was superb. I went over to New York and bought Erroll Garner’s Penthouse Serenade. I got the (piano) music and the 12″ which was not available in the UK, brought it home and tried to play as well as Erroll Garner in five minutes, because I now had the music and I now had the record. In actual fact I was playing well but I didn’t realise it – I thought I was going downhill. I remember going for an audition for the Big George Evans Band, and he said ‘you’re a solo pianist; you’re not a jazz pianist; you can’t extemporise if you’ve got the music in front of you.’ I decided that if I could not play as well as these people I wanted to do something where I could enjoy my hobby and maybe earn a living. I was a great film salesman. I was their youngest and possibly their highest paid, because I worked like crazy. I had a knack of walking into a room sensing what to do, whether to talk football or women. I was a natural salesman – I could sell anything. At Columbia (Pictures) in those days we had to sell The Bandit of Sherwood Forest while MGM were sitting there taking orders for Quo Vadis – that was the contrast, selling straight to the cinemas. So it was like me trying to compete with a full out EMI campaign when I had Ember. There was no chance – you had to do it in other ways. So I went with a girl to the Mapleton restaurant on a Saturday night to have a meal after coming out of the Empire.
I Went down to the men’s room and there was this lovely basement; it was like a room where they did their little affairs. I spoke to the manager, Tony Harris and I said ‘What do you do with that room downstairs?’ ‘Nothing’, he said.’The Wardour Street people use the room during the week but Friday, Saturday, Sunday it’s empty.’ And we started to talk and he liked music and I said to him: ‘I’ve been to the cinema, but before I picked up my girlfriend I went down to Studio 51 – God, it’s terrible down there. I’d like to open a jazz club here.’ And that’s how it started. He said ‘what rent can you pay?’ And I said ‘look, the room’s empty. If I bring in people, you run the bar, you keep the bar; let me worry about what goes on in the room.’ At that time I was exceedingly friendly with Tony Hall who was the compere at Studio 51, and one of my other close friends was Les Perrin, who was the laid back, arch PR man.
Les Perrin and Tony Hall
Had he (Perrin) left the NME?
This was 1952 – the NME hadn’t started. It may have started but Maurice (Kinn) was not involved and that will take another few hours! The take-over of the NME, just as a side issue, was going to be Harold Davison, me and Maurice and some money from the guy who ran ballrooms in Norwich and Nottingham. There was a lot of jealousy and friction between Maurice and me; we did two tours – the Sarah Vaughan tour which is how I got her to the club, and the Billie Holiday tour – that’s how I got Billie to the club. But Maurice forgot to bill me on the Sarah Vaughan tour. It was ‘Maurice Kinn presents…’ Left me out and everybody else. He did put ‘by arrangement with Harold Davison’ but we were not pleased. Joe Loss was his silent partner – the Kim Loss Agency. So I said to Les Perrin ‘I’ve got this idea.’ ‘Great idea’, he said,’we’ll go up and see Harold.’ So we went up to see Harold Davison and he said ‘what do you want to do?’ So I told him and he said ‘look, when my groups are playing The Palladium, they finish at 9.30pm, so what night do you want to open?’ I said ‘what night can I get Ted Heath?’
He said: ‘Don’t be mad, you couldn’t afford Ted Heath.’ In those days it was £150 for Ted Heath. I said ‘what about Johnny Dankworth?’ He said ‘the big band? You can’t get it in the room. But the 7-piece might be an idea. August 29th they’re going to be at the Palladium, they’ll be finished by 8 o’clock. If you want the Seven, how much can you pay them?’ I said ‘I’ve got no money, I’m trying to do this on the “if”. I think I paid them £30 but in those days that was a lot of money. Then Tony Hall and Les Perrin came up with the idea of the re-formation of Kenny Graham*, so Les got me the front page of Melody Maker and the top story was the Flamingo opening. It was the front page story because Ray Sonning became a friend of mine – he was the editor – he was at the Melody Maker and he had something to do with the NME – I can’t remember what. But in any event Ray gave us the front page story. Everyone was telling me ‘use this one (musician), use that one, use Tommy Pollard.’ I’d never heard of these people but I had to get into British jazz. I knew Tommy Kinsey, I knew Ted Heath because I’d seen him at the Palladium, but I really didn’t know the Tommy Pollards, the Dudley Moores, the George Shearings. I knew every American act. Les got me publicity like I’d never had and by four-o-clock on the afternoon of August 29th, I had a call from the police. I lived in Harrow. ‘Mr Kruger, come and get these people off the street or we’re going to charge you with obstruction.’ I said ‘what are you talking about’ ‘Hasn’t anybody called you?’ ‘No’. He said ‘there are 400- to 1000 people round the Mapleton, blocking the back of the Prince of Wales. Get them off the streets!’ The room legitimately only held 300 people. I called Tony Hall. ‘Listen, I’m on my way to the club; it’ll take me 40 minutes to get through the traffic. Got any records? What can we do?’ So Tony grabbed all the records he could; I got there, and it was mobbed. I grabbed my mum and dad and said ‘Look, we’ve got to make all these people members; they’ve all got to sign a form; it will take hours.’ We charged them 7s6d (37p) which was higher than the most expensive seat in the cinema and they had to wear ties and jackets. We were going to make it upmarket. That’s how the Flamingo started in 1952 – a full house and I had the Johnny Dankworth Seven (without Cleo), Kenny Graham, and a house trio. That night every guest in the world who was anyone tried to get it. I made nearly £100 that night after I’d paid everybody – I guess that’s £200 by today’s standards (remember this interview dates from 2000).
Johnny Dankworth Seven
- Wikipedia verification: After the end of the war, Kenny Graham played in many of the leading British dance bands of the era, including those led by Nat Temple, Nat Gonella, Ambrose, Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson and Eric Winstone, as well as in Victor Feldman‘s Sextet, before forming Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists in April 1950. The band sought to develop “an amalgam of bebop, African and Cuban rhythms and super-modern harmonies” Although “artistically successful” and acclaimed for its innovative style, the band was not widely popular with audiences and the original band folded in March 1952 when trumpeter Jo Hunter and drummer Dicky DeVere left. However, a new band of Afro-Cubists performed at the opening night of the Flamingo Club in Soho in August 1952. Graham also played baritone sax in Jack Parnell‘s band, and tenor with other bands, occasionally reconvening the Afro-Cubists for recordings and performances. The Afro-Cubists recorded two EPs in 1954, Afro-Cadabra and Excerpts from Caribbean Suite, with a band including saxophonist Eddie Mordue and drummer Phil Seamen.[
Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists
Phew! And that’s just the first three of a 30-page interview. More as soon as….
©David Hughes 2017 (text) Pictures from Google search are for illustrative purposes only.