The Birth of Rhythm and Blues

The genteel setting of Twickenham’s riverbank is the last place you’d imagine as the epicentre of raunchy rhythm and blues music. But in the middle of the Thames, accessed by a footbridge, is Eel Pie Island, whose Eel Pie Hotel played host to everyone who was anyone on the early ’60s rock circuit, from the Stones to Rod Stewart, before they shot to stardom. Now this musical heritage is being celebrated with an exhibition of photos, artwork and other Eel Pie memorabilia. There’s also a series of talks, as well as concerts at Twickenham’s Eel Pie Club (www.eelpieclub.com). ‘The British Beat Explosion: Rock ’n’ Roll Island’ by Michele Whitby is published on Thursday August 1 and a film about the island will be shown at Aurora Metro Arts in Twickenham in September.

Photos in the exhibition show heavily eyelinered girls, leaning nonchalantly at the hotel’s bar, or sporting winkle-pickers and pneumatic busts as they dance in the ballroom.

‘The hotel had the perfect floor that bounced everyone up and down,’ remembers Don Craine, who performed there with his band The Downliners Sect, and is appearing at one of the talks. ‘It was an automatic sex machine – you played the music and the floor did the rest.’  

The island became a music mecca in 1957, when a bridge was built linking it with Twickenham. Arthur Chisnall, a Kingston junk shop owner, set up weekly jazz dances at the hotel, which was soon jumping to the likes of George Melly as well as visiting US blues musicians. By the early ’60s, Chisnall was booking a new generation of bands that included John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (with Eric Clapton), The Tridents (with Jeff Beck) and The Who. The Stones had a Wednesday night residency. 

But in 1967 the hotel’s state of disrepair forced it to close and it mysteriously burnt down in 1971. Today, the island has become a leafy, private idyll. Twice a year it invites the public to its artists’ open studio days (www.eelpieislandartists.co.uk). Meanwhile, 

the music lives on at the Eel Pie Club, which is dedicated to preserving the sounds that throbbed over the river all those decades ago.

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