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The original rock 'n' roll star

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: November 25, 2008

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WHO was Britain's first rock 'n' roller? The obvious suspects would include the likes of Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Terry Dean.

But none of them qualify. The accolade goes to Rory Blackwell, who was driving them wild in clubs, pubs and dance halls around London in the early 1950s with his group, the Blackjacks.

The cockney singer, drummer and songwriter pioneered the wild, new music wafting across the Atlantic from the USA, and was the forerunner of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the other Brit bands which have leapt to international fame and fortune over the last 50 years.

He recorded more than 30 singles and LPs, was a session drummer with several top bands, played with the Beach Boys and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, toured with many other American top acts, appeared in films, and moved on to become an entertainer and smashed many quirky world records for playing musical instruments.

Oh, and before becoming a musician he was a talented champion boxer.

The grandad of Brit rock is now 75 and living at Starcross, and recounts the early days of fame and fun with a self-deprecating humour.

Modest Rory won't admit it, but he is now something of a cult figure among early rock aficionados and memorabilia collectors.

He featured in the country's first rock musical, Rock You Sinners, made in 1957 and now a rare classic.

"There is a clip on YouTube of me singing Rocking with Rory which I saw the other day," he said.

"It was dire and made me squirm a bit.

"At the time it was quite a hit, but it was a different era then and kids had never really heard that type of music.

"I was never much of a singer, and was much happier playing the drums."

The Blackjacks shot into the charts at the time with Bye Bye Love, reaching number seven.

"It was a little-known American song which had been around for a time," said Rory.

"We were dead chuffed that our rocky version did so well, but then the Everly Brothers issued their slower version and wiped us out of the charts.

"We were gutted, but what chance did we stand against two good-looking, smooth-sounding American boys?"

Rory points out the description rock 'n' roll was in use in the States in the 1930s, but did not start to gain popularity until after the war.

"It covered a wide range of different music, and gradually began to creep over here. I was a jazz drummer, but gradually changed over to rock 'n' roll," he said.

"We were playing rock two years before Bill Haley shot to stardom and revolutionised the music scene."

Brought up in a Barnados orphanage in south London, Rory admits he was a 'bit of lad'.

Bizarrely, it was a chance encounter with one of the country's greatest classical conductors and musicians, Sir Adrian Boult, which led to a life of rock 'n' roll.

"He lived nearby, and I used to scrump apples from his garden," he said.

"He caught me one day and gave me a ticking off. But we struck up a friendship, and he introduced me to various musical instruments, including the cello, and encouraged me to play.

"He sent me for proper lessons, which is why I can read music, and started me on the musical road.

"I suppose he was my mentor, and I owe it all to him."

But Rory was also more than useful with his fists, and became an Amateur Boxing Association light welterweight champ.

His boxing career blossomed when he signed up for three years in the RAF, and he rose to the rank of Flight Sergeant in the RAF police and became a combined services champion.

Back in civvy street, Rory turned pro and won his first three bouts.

But then a blow to the face affected his eyesight. His licence was revoked, and although he later made a full recovery, he decided not to step back into the ring.

Boxing's loss was rock's gain, as the young Rory went back to music, moving around jazz venues with such top bands as Chris Barber and Ken Collyer.

Playing in a holiday camp in 1959, he took on a young stand-in pianist, Clive Powell.

He left at the end of the season, and went on to acclaim as Georgie Fame.

And at another holiday camp Rory recalls he gave the first lesson to a budding young Liverpool drummer, who later soared to fame as Ringo Starr of the Beatles.

Being a 'proper' musician, Rory was much in demand as a session drummer in recording studios.

He featured on the classic 50s hit, Hoots Mon, by Lord Rockingham's XI, a group of session musicians put together as the resident band on the TV show, Oh Boy.

Rory enjoyed his session work, and recalled: "Some quite famous bands, who I won't name, were not always happy with their drummers, so I was called in to lay down the beat on recordings.

"I was also called up to play with Beach Boys on American and Canadian tours, and that was a great experience.

"There was a Beach Boys reunion in the States earlier in the year, and I was invited along by Brian Wilson, who was the mastermind behind their songs.

"Also there were other great groups from the 60s era such as Jan and Dean and the Eagles, and the legendary ZZ Top."

During their heyday, the Blackjacks also toured the country with other big American names such as Gene Vincent, Brenda Lee and Jerry Lee Lewis, which Rory describes as 'simply amazing; I learned so much from them'.

In those pioneering days, it was a much more innocent time, compared with the excesses of later pop stars.

"There were groupies waiting at the stage door, but usually for the top of the bill, not me.

"There were a few drugs around, but it was quite mild compared with today's scene."

Rory never kept any of his own records, but in later years has been acquiring some of them on eBay.

He was astounded to learn there was a bid of £165 for one of his singles.

Some of the Blackjacks' hits are still being released on British Beat compilation recordings from the 1950s.

He's still in demand for British revival tours, attended by thousands. The last was in Weymouth two years ago where he sang a few of his old hits to a appreciative crowd, some coming over from abroad.

Rory's first experience before the movie cameras was playing Geordie in Cosh Boy, which also featured an up-and-coming young actress, Jackie Collins.

By sheer chance, Rock You Sinners starred her sister, Joan Collins.

"Although they both spoke with quite posh voices, they were both very nice to a Cockney boy like me," said Rory.

"It's great to see how successful they've become over the years."

Rory found more fame by smashing about a dozen world records for bizarre musical achievements, such as non-stop drumming without a break for 126 hours.

He also played 314 different musical instruments in tune, one at a time, in 83.07 seconds; playing 9,120 single notes on a guitar in one-minute, and he rang 1,000 handbells, one at a time, in 47.08 seconds.

They were all duly entered in the Guinness Book of Records, making him the world's fastest and most manic drummer.

Only one of his achievements has been bettered — the 1991 record of 3,720 single beats on a drum with sticks in one minute.

Charities benefited by thousands of pounds from his wacky stunts.

He's had a good life, but went through a dark patch of depression when his beloved younger son Rowdy, 19, died in a car crash not far from home.

Rowdy was a real chip off the old block, outgoing and a talented footballer and drummer, destined for a great future.

His passing hit Rory very hard and, although he is still grieving, the pain has eased.

Now he has found happiness again with his wife Joanna, a translator he met in Portugal. Despite a 50-year age gap, they have both found happiness, and plan to sell up and start up a club in her homeland.

Rory said: "It was love at first sight. There may be a big difference in our ages, but we get on great and I think we are good for each other."

Knowing Rory, he will do it with gusto.

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  • Profile image for This is Exeter
    Laurent, London  |  July 14 2009, 3:26AM

    Good musician

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    Fred, Exeter  |  June 16 2009, 12:40AM

    Had the pleasure to meet rory and his beautiful wife, they are a fantastic couple. great article.

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    tracey, essex  |  January 09 2009, 10:13AM

    Ex blackjack band member Mickey Flynn (Leonard) wants to get in touch. Would be great to hear from you.

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    jessica campanero, philippines  |  December 13 2008, 6:36AM

    hi,,it been a long a time..i hope you still remember me..so how are you? by the way im sorry that i cant write you back because i was busy with my studies..i hope your okie..take care and good bless...

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    Robbie Millar, Durban, South Africa  |  November 27 2008, 7:28PM

    I worked for Rory as a roadie when he was in SA..I was with him for about 9 months.WE came down fromJo'burg to Durban to do some shows with Brian Poole an the Tremeloes,and the gigged around Durban for a few weeks...Rory was very popular with the kids and all the other band and muso's.I would love to make contact with him again. Hey Rory ...what happened to Ricky Newby and Lucky Nelson. Hope to hear from you if possible Kindest Regards and luck Robbie Millar

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