I enjoyed the Culture Show special on Black British swing musicians of the 1930s yesterday evening. One of the experts taking part said that although their music was clearly influenced by American big bands of the era, there was also a calypso-like influence that came from their Caribbean background. I am not sure, to be honest, that you can detect it in this track, which is the only one by this band I can find on Youtube.
Snakehips Johnson was born in British Guiana and came to Britain at the age of 15, attending Sir William Borlase's Grammar School in Marlow and Edinburgh University.
But he soon became better known as a dancer - you can see him dancing on Youtube - and a band leader. The status he soon gained seems to have owed as much to his looks and entrepreneurial sense as his musical ability.
He had grasped how exciting an all-Black swing band would be in the London of the 1930s (even if one or two of the musicians in the photographs shown on the Culture Show did seem to be subtly blacked up) and soon got the hottest gig in town. His West Indian Orchestra was the house band at the most glittering nightspot in town: the Cafe de Paris.
War came, but the cellar club at the Cafe was so deep that people assumed they would be safe their from the blitz and the show went on.
Until the night of 8 March 1941. A Daily Mail feature tells the story:
That night, the area between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square was being strafed with bombs.
But inside the Café de Paris, West Indian-born band leader Ken Johnson – known as 'Snakehips' because of his silky dancing style – revved up his swing band into the opening bars of the Andrews Sisters' hit, Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!
The floor was heaving with couples. Suddenly, there was an immense blue flash. Two bombs had hit the building, hurtled down a ventilation shaft from the roof and exploded right in front of the band.
Snakehips' head was blown from his shoulders. Dancers' legs were sheered off. The blast, magnified in the confined space, burst the lungs of diners as they sat at their tables and killed them instantly.
At least 34 staff, guests and band members died that night.Snakehips Johnson was buried at his old school in Marlow. He was 26.
According to Another Nickel in the Machine one of the first people on the site of this carnage was a special constable by the name of Ballard Berkeley. Years later he was to play the Major in Fawlty Towers.