When Jimi Hendrix rocked South Shields – 50 years ago today

Jimi Hendrix performs at The New Cellar in one of the few existing photos from the gig
Jimi Hendrix performs at The New Cellar in one of the few existing photos from the gig

He is regarded as one of rock’n’roll’s greats and still attracts legions of fans born decades after his untimely death.

Yet a small part of American guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s whirlwind success story lies inside what is now a South Shields dental clinic.

A Cellar Club advert for the gig. Note the different spelling of Hendrix's first name.

A Cellar Club advert for the gig. Note the different spelling of Hendrix's first name.

Psychedelic hero Hendrix had still to crack the big time when he was booked to play The New Cellar club, in the town’s Thomas Street, as part of a punishing debut British tour of smaller venues.

Yet by the evening of the gig on February 1, 1967, debut single Hey Joe had crashed into the United Kingdom top 10 and South Shields had bagged itself an overnight sensation.

Exactly what happened inside The New Cellar is keenly debated and among the more arguable claims to surface during the intervening 50 years is that Hendrix fought with the club’s bouncers.

Oh and then there’s the suggestion that he had spent the afternoon busking in the town’s Frederick Street.

Hendrix at The New Cellar.

Hendrix at The New Cellar.

But it appears generally accepted that the singer and his band, known collectively as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, paid the packed club the traditional rock star courtesy of turning up late.

Problems with amps and the venue’s revolving stage added further chaos to proceedings with Hendrix himself accidentally smashing the top of his guitar into the low ceiling.

Encouraged by the audience’s appreciative response, he deliberately repeated the manoeuvre with the resulting damage christened Jimi’s Hole and left untouched for months.

With the Experience perhaps anticipating equipment problems, they also insisted on playing before local band The Bond.

The derelict club around 10 years ago.

The derelict club around 10 years ago.

So the Shields group - made up of Les Gofton, Jim Fraser, Robin Thompson and Dave Bainbridge - can argue that they were supported by the great guitarist himself and not the other way around.

There are also rumours that Hendrix had a drink after the show with another star name who had just performed at the nearby La Strada club - Engelbert Humperdinck of The Last Waltz and Please Release Me fame.

So what happened next? Hendrix’s hectic schedule saw him appear at the Imperial Hotel, in Darlington, 24 hours later for the third of three what would now be called “intimate” North-East gigs.

As Gazette reader Barry Wood, present at The New Cellar, would later tell the paper: “We were indeed blessed to be around at a time pre-dating stadium rock.

“Time was when you could actually see the whites of your idols’ eyes while they did their thing, just an arm’s length away from you.”

The first of the three appearances in the region was at Kirklevington Country Club, near Yarm, with the visiting a lengthy list of what today’s music fans would consider unlikely locations.

Folkestone, Ilkley, Oldham, Chislehurst, Boston, Lincoln, Slough and Tooting all have Jimi Hendrix stories to share alongside Shields.

There are tales that his record company began to offer venues in such towns double the band’s £70-£90 fee to cancel the gigs so that the Experience could make even more money playing larger concerts.

But manager Chaz Chandler, departing member of North-East band The Animals, insisted on sticking to the original schedule.

With follow-up singles Purple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary also storming the charts, the tour and venues did eventually get bigger with the band only returning to the North East to play four nights across two visits to Newcastle City Hall.

Another of Freddie Mudditt's pictures from the South Shields gig

Another of Freddie Mudditt's pictures from the South Shields gig

Hendrix would eventually cram in 251 gigs across Britain, Europe and America during his breakthrough year and by the end of 1967 he was an international star.

Performances on these shores thereafter were restricted to London’s Albert Hall, the BBC Television Centre and music festivals as he concentrated on spreading his fame in his homeland.

By 1969 he was reputedly the world’s highest paid musician, had ditched the Experience and headlined the Woodstock music festival complete with his memorable Star Spangled Banner finale.

He would, however, die in England in 1970 at the age of 27 following a drugs overdose at girlfriend Monika Danneman’s London flat.

From penniless musician to worldwide fame and premature death in less than four years, Hendrix lived his life in a similar fashion to the lightning way he played his guitar.

And South Shields can at least say it played a small part in his rapid rise to stardom.

Readers’ memories of Jimi Hendrix’s visit to South Shields

Half a century’s passing has shrouded much of what exactly happened inside The New Cellar in myth and mystery.

Half a century’s passing has shrouded much of what exactly happened inside The New Cellar in myth and mystery.

So while apologising in advance for anything which might be disputed, we are grateful to Gazette readers at the show for sharing their memories with us over the years.

Barry Wood, for instance, had a slightly different take on the Jimi’s Hole episode when he spoke to us last year and suggested the damage was deliberate from the outset.

He wrote: “I can remember the confused look on the face of Alf, the bouncer, when Hendrix began to stab his Stratocaster headstock into the plasterwork above the stage to encourage feedback and noises, showering the stage with dust and debris.

“ I think Alf was on the verge of jumping onto the stage to restrain him, but luckily for the audience, he didn’t.

“If, as Noel Redding said, they couldn’t hear what they were playing, I can tell you that it sounded phenomenal from the audience side.

“And what they were able to deliver with, by modern stage technology, Jurassic gear, still sends a shiver down my spine to this day.”

Post office clerk Julia Northam, 58, whose dad, Freddie Mudditt, of South Shields-based Fietscher Fotos took our gig pictures, contacted us from Teesside after seeing our Facebook post appealing for your memories.

She said: “Me and my sisters were always aware when we were growing up that my dad had taken pictures of Jimi Hendrix although we were maybe too young at the time to appreciate his music.”

Julia, whose dad also took photographs of the Queen and boxer Muhammad Ali during their visits to Shields, joked: “I must admit, I was more of a Rod Stewart and David Bowie fan myself.”

Bill Mcdonald added via our Facebook page: “I was there. He blew all the lights warming up back stage but was unforgettable.”

Pauline Clouston 
also wrote on Facebook: “My husband was there. He still talks about it now.”

We imagine it will continue to be talked about in South Shields for some time yet.

A history of the South Shields venue where Jimi Hendrix played

The original premises were simply known as The Cellar and based at what is now a terraced house in Beach Road.

They were opened in 1956 by Gladys Hogg, who had previously run dance classes there, as a jazz club.

As musical tastes developed over the next decade then so the venue became an established haven for promising rock, soul and rhythm and blues acts to perform at.

With Gladys’s family helping to form entertainments empire the Bailey Organisation, the club announced it was building a £50,000 new home in nearby Thomas Street and soon attracted bookings such as former Manfred Mann frontman Paul Jones and American singer Geno Washington.

Adverts in the Shields Gazette encouraged the public to quickly become members and touted it as “the most with it club in all Britain for the 18 to 25s”, with highlights including “go go girls and all that jazz”.

Opening on December 2, 1966, in time for the busy Christmas period, former Yardbirds guitarist Eric Clapton’s new supergroup Cream were hastily recruited to begin the new era.

The New Cellar’s “stop press” advert in the Gazette promised “more big groups coming”. Step forward the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Not that The New Cellar, whose sister venue was Club Latino, in the town’s Cavendish House, forgot local acts with The Shady Cases, The Clique and The Urge among countless North East names to appear.

With musical tastes changing once more in the 1970s, not helped by a growing tendency for tomorrow’s stars to appear at universities and polytechnics, the club changed name and owners and will be remembered by 1980s drinkers as the Chelsea Cat disco.

The venue reopened as The Cellar in 1995 and briefly flourished by hosting the Yardbirds – minus Clapton – and 1970s progressive rock stars Wishbone Ash.

Semi-retired Noel Redding, Hendrix’s bass guitarist in the Experience, also took time out from his weekly residency at his local Irish boozer to re-appear at the venue.

After another disco incarnation as The Wave, the building stood derelict until it was taken over by the Complete Smile Dental Clinic.

* While The New Cellar’s change of use may have ruled out an anniversary gig, a Hendrix tribute band will play a show on Thursday to mark 50 years since his Darlington appearance.

Sundance appear from 8pm at Joe’s Bar, in the basement of what used to be the Imperial Hotel, in Grange Road, with tickets costing £5 in advance or £7.50 on the night.

Further details are available from www.sundanceband.co.uk

A ticket from the Jimi Hendrix gig in South Shields.

A ticket from the Jimi Hendrix gig in South Shields.