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Honouring Vernon’s memory

Honouring Vernon’s memory

On Vernon’s 2nd anniversary. His memory and his stories are and will always be with us. This is one of the first I heard from him, and I am reproducing it as he wrote it, with some edits which aim to improve the flow and rhythm he always rendered to his oral stories. Members of the family and a few friends I am sure will recognise some bits.

Here he tells us his experiences playing with Joe Cocker at the American Bases in France, back in 1964. This was one of his favourite stories and I am just typing what he wrote, with some minor edits.

Once in France, they have to phone the agent.

In a phone-box there’s nowhere to put the money. How do we dial? Vernon wonders. Asking a woman in the street how to phone, she asks:

“Vous n’avez pas de jetons?”

“Qu’est-ce que c’est qu’un jeton?”

“Il faut aller à la Poste.”

Off they went to the main post office and learnt the system fast.

In those days France had no STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) so all calls went through the operator. Vernon queues to buy the “jetons”: Small metallic disks with a strange groove down the middle which can only be used for phoning. So, “jeton” means “token” in English, he learns.

Having bought the jetons, you’re sent to a cabin with a number. In the cabin you wait for the phone to ring.

“Vous désirez, monsieur?”

Vernon asks for Châteauroux 5770.

“Ne quittez pas”

Hold the line. How those words burnt themselves into Vernon’s brain over the years.

“Monsieur Easton n’est pas ici. Il vient de sortir”, comes from the other end of the line. How often he was to hear those words. He explains all this to Joe, who looks highly displeased.

They decide to call back in a couple of hours and have a drink just at the side: “Bar-Tabac de la Poste”. After a few “vins blancs” they return to La Poste.

“Monsieur has just got back. He can talk to you”.

Since the Dutchman speaks English, Joe’s on the phone to him.

“Right. So, we’re playing on an American air base north of the city. Not difficult to find, he says. He’ll call in at the air base in a day or two about us getting paid.”

Now Vernon continues…

Experiences at the first Base

Arriving at the base we ask at the gate for the EM club. E.M. means enlisted men, or non-officers, ordinary GIs. We set up our gear and the GIs start coming in. We do the first spot. First an instrumental, “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs. Goes down well. Joe comes on and sings a few songs. Goes down even better. The Yanks looked puzzled. What’re these white British guys doing playing black-men’s music? Whites and Blacks equally bewildered.

Off stage we grab a drink. Drinks are ridiculously cheap on the US bases, which pleases us greatly as we’re bound for the poorhouse in short order. I taste my first genuine American hamburger. Delicious. Didn’t take us long to realise that all food consumed on the bases was specially flown in from the States. We never saw in 3 months any French food on these bases, but this imported Yankee food was mouth-watering, so who cared?

We play a few days; meanwhile we’re sleeping in the van in the middle of winter, but my knowledge of French came in handy. In the city centre I spotted a sign, “Bains-douches Municipaux.” So, after the freezing night in the van, we paid one franc and stood under a lovely hot shower for as long as we liked.

Hence our routine for the week was established. Wake up stiff and cold in the freezing van. Shoot off to the municipal shower-baths, pay one franc and warm up as we got clean. Then breakfast in the “Grand Café Central.” Very posh with waiters in uniform. Breakfast always the same —“cinq pains beurrés et cinq cafés -crême.” As the boys though the bread was like cake there were no complaints. Then off to the Poste. Jetons, cabine.

“Ne quittez pas.”

“Je suis désolée”. Monsieur Easton vient de sortir.”

“We’ll ring back two hours later”.

In the end, Ted Easton came to the base accompanied by an enormous, hulky bodyguard and servant. He gestured to the bodyguard who pulled out five brown envelopes. One each, $50 in each envelope. That was our salary: fifty lousy stinking dollars a week. If you ever read Raymond Chandler (1950s) you’ll discover that $50 a week was a lousy, stinking wage even then!

Some misunderstandings at our second base

The day after the sergeant in charge of the EM club gives us a message. As from tomorrow we’re at “4A” Army base to the west of the city. Easy to find.

We drive around the west side of Orléans, asking people the way to “quatre-A” American base. Blank faces. Frustrated, I ask in English 4-A.

“Aah! Vous voulez dire forêt.”

“Forêt” meaning Woods or forest in English. Those Yanks could be really annoying at times.

We pull up at the guardhouse at the gate.

“Who are you guys?”

“We’re the group”

“Group of what?”

“We play music, you know, in the club.”

“So, you’re the band. OK, go see Sergeant de Vore at the EM club”

We drive up to the EM club.

“Sergeant de Vore, please”

Crew-cut. Big cigar.

“Who you guys?”

“We’re the group —sorry, band.”

“Ok, where’s the moose?”

Blank looks.

“Where’s the pig?”

Blank looks again. Then two other species of animal. More blank looks.

“So, cut the bullshit. Where’s the broad?”

The penny drops. I point to Joe.

“He’s our singer.”

“Ain’t no band gonna play in my EM club without a broad.”

We jump in the van and shoot down to the post office. Queue, jetons, cabine. I wait. Joe tells the manager we can’t work without a girl singer. Manager asks us to give him a few hours. We ring back about 6 pm. Manager says the girl singer will be at the train station at 5 pm the next day.

We’d already befriended a very personable Dutchman, sax player in a Dutch Dixieland band. He says he’ll show us where the railway station is. We wait. 5 pm the train pulls in. A peroxide blonde steps off the train.

“Are you Joe Cocker?” This in broad Yorkshire accent.

“Yeah”

“I’m Marie Woodhouse. I’ve come to sing with your band.”

Joe and the band get popular at the bases and among the French in Orléans

When we get to the base Joe asks if we can start rehearsals. We talk to Marie about the songs she knows, and it turns out it’s about six, including Blueberry Hill. We rehearse all afternoon until Joe’s satisfied.

At 7:00 pm we go on stage. A couple of instrumentals including Chuck Berry’s “Guitar Boogie”. Then Joe comes on. Sings a few songs that go down real well.

“And now, for your entertainment, our special guest artiste, the glamorous Miss Marie Woodhouse.”

On comes Marie. The Yanks go crazy. Wild applause before she’s even sung a note. When she sings “Bluberry Hill” the applause gets louder and wilder.

At the same time and as the days go by, we note that the racial mix is changing among the GIs. When we arrived, it was 10% black, 90% white. But now the black proportion is rapidly rising. People move round the bases to hear the “white/black singer.” The number of black military police increases. The French, too, have now heard of “Le petit Ray Charles anglaise.” They call him “Joé Cockère”. Audiences grow in size. The whites invite Marie for a drink, the blacks invite Joe and the band to their tables.

But we’re still sleeping in the van, warming up at the municipal shower-baths, breakfast at the Grand Café Central, then La Poste. Le bar-tabac de la Poste. Trying to get paid. Getting a bit pissed off when one night a rather stout Hungarian comes in. He wants to speak to Joe. I tell him Joe doesn’t speak French, so I interpret for him.

It turns out that the guy has a girlfriend called Madame Suzie. She’s got a night club and she would like us to play there after we’ve finished at the base. The deal is free board, free drinks, no food, no pay. The band go into a huddle.

“OK. We’ll do it.”

At 11:00 pm we pack up the equipment and follow the guy’s car to Madame Suzie’s night club. We set up and do our first show that night. They’ve got four rooms. There are five of us as Marie soon got involved with the Dutch sax player thus solving her “lodging” problems. Joe shares a big double bed with the bass player. I get a little attic to myself.

So, it’s 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm on the Yankee base, then to Madame Suzie’s to perform till 4:00 am. The black audience gets bigger and bigger at the base and Joe is sometimes invited into their barracks to listen to James Brown, Ray Charles, all the best soul singers. Meanwhile, the audience at Madame Suzie’s is 50% GIs – 50% French. The French are hooked on Joe Cockère, who’s fast becoming a great star in Joan of Arc’s city, all for a measly fifty bucks a week. And now, with lodging, free drinks and dirt-cheap cigarettes from the PX stores, we’ve got more cash to spare. I take the boys to Galleries La Fayette to look at the clobber. We all return with super-cool French sports jackets and groovy trousers and shirts.

In France, things are “getting better all the time…”

And here we come to the end of the story for the time being. Not sure when I’ll be able to add any more of these stories Vernon left in writing. In any case, I think of him when I play the music he left, when I look at the corrections and edits he made of the things I wrote, when I consider all the many things I learnt from and with him. Thank you, my love.

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Comments (2)

  1. Stan Dickens
    Jul 3, 2021

    This brings back many memories Paloma. Hadn’t heard the second base stories which is very entertaining. What an adventurous life Vernon had! I have many great memories. We miss him too!

  2. Jul 21, 2021

    Very true, Stan. I’ll try to select another story for his birthday.

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