I’m sorry I didn’t have your company last month but I was laid low with CoVid, having tested positive two weeks before Christmas. This was my first time, so consider myself so very fortunate that I’ve avoided it thus far. And to anyone who says, CoVid is nothing to get het up about, let me tell you, it was a huge uphill struggle. It was horrible on so many levels. Happily, my health has returned to normal now. So, let’s TCB…
To start this new year I’m hoping to breathe in, and share with you, some of the atmosphere that was enjoyed in one of London’s most famous of nightclubs – Gullivers. It was certainly my club of choice; and it was also Motown’s club of choice as it played host to many of our visiting acts, whether it was a fully-blown reception, private party or secret, quiet late night drink. Taking photos was forbidden on the two latter occasions. Sitting with Bubba Knight and others drinking brandy is one of many memories I’ve had stored away. However, I think most of all, being part of the Gullivers family was something rather special, and it’s a feeling that has stayed with me through the years.
I realise you have to be a certain age to remember this venue, tucked away at 11 Down Street in Mayfair in London, but believe me it was the place to be for visiting American soul acts, British soul elite and everyday people fortunate enough to secure a membership. Music business folk like myself, working Motown’s publicity, were naturally welcome, particularly by the Club’s DJs because we usually arrived bearing vinyl exclusives. One night I arrived with one of the first promotional pressings of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”. The DJ nearly bit my hand off to play it. And that DJ was Graham “Fatman” Canter, one of the jocks who worked the ground floor. Graham Gold was another, who called Fatman his DJ Guru. Other names spring to mind like Tony Santos, Nicky McKenzie, Ron E Dee, Danny D, James Hamilton and Rudy Gilpin. More about Stevie’s single further on!
I recently came across an advertisement for the club, so check out these prices for starters. Drinks were 80p for pint of beer; £1.10 for gin and tonic, and snacks priced at £1.50 (I think I’m right in saying that most clubs offered some sort of food dished up on a paper plate to enable them to stay open after midnight). Membership was £25 per annum (£10 for ladies – I wonder why!) while the entrance fee for non-members was £3 a visit. Alongside cash, payment could be made by Diners Card, American Express or cheque with a banker’s card. Aw, those were the days! The remainder of the advert included, “The emphasis in Gullivers is on the music. The walls of the club are decorated with huge cartoon characters and the colour scheme both upstairs and downstairs is dark red and black. Upstairs is a more sophisticated version of downstairs…The dance floor is usually packed with amazing dancers amongst whom there is often a well-known musician, as visiting black artists always show up at Gullivers. This is where Heatwave, the Four Tops and even the Harlem Globetrotters hang out when they’re in London.”
Graham “Fatman” Canter told me in a 1992 interview, “*Punters rubbed shoulders with recording artists, who rubbed shoulders with the media and record company personnel. The latter was all important – they collected the tab! But even though our distinguished guests visited us frequently, it was the customers, the atmosphere and the music that made Gullivers a cut above the rest during the seventies and eighties. Mind you, I never did discover just why it was called Gullivers. Jonathan Swift’s novel about the Lilliputians’ struggle didn’t draw any parallels to visiting international stars.”
*Punters is a British slang expression for paying customers
Gullivers was created early in the ‘70s by Phil Tibber (ex-reception manager of well-known London clubs of the sixties like Scotch of St James and La Valbonne) and his partner Graham Davis. Situated just to the back of The Hilton Hotel, Gullivers was fairly small, split into two levels. “The main room was where I had the pleasure of being resident DJ and compere, and both floors held about two hundred and fifty people, but with the complete absence of what we would now call hi-tech equipment,” Graham continued. “For example, the lighting system consisted of two small control boxes for perhaps, twenty-four flashing lights and about a dozen stage spots. The sound itself could perhaps be best described as adequate, but the Club had one thing that no other club in the seventies in London really had – that atmosphere.
“Phil and Graham’s policy was that whilst the Club was open, one or both of them was on the reception desk, extending a warm welcome to each guest, together with a quip or anecdote. Prior to this, club goers would be greeted by a smiling bouncer, lurking by the glass front doors, which led to a long staircase with mirrored walls on either side.” Through the swing doors at the bottom of the stairs and the main room was in full view. Well, nearly if the lights were up, but not at all if a session was off and running. This darkness was, however, broken up by the light system which was sufficient to identify outlines of standing figures craning to see a performance, or dancers cavorting on the dance floor, or locating a table that was free. Waitress service ensured regular drinks, and food which was available throughout the evening. To the side of the DJ box tucked away in the main room’s far corner was a door leading outside. What went on out there I was never a part of, having been banned by Graham from even peeking through the door when it was being opened by one of several guys who would pass through during an evening.
Recalled Graham, “It was the atmosphere – yeah I’ve said it again – particularly at the end of the week when we were burning up. Sounds pulsating until the roof creaked, while the heat made the dancers gag. My DJ booth, tucked away in a corner by the dancefloor was like a sweat box on these nights, its walls crammed with records. Likewise the floor, the ceiling and any available space. We broke records in both senses of the word, until three, four o’clock in the morning when I could barely utter a word. Yet the adrenalin flowed for another two hours or so.
“I joined Gullivers after a period of three years in Nassau and Miami, working for The Sonesta Hotel chain. Quite frankly, it was the best move I could have made. Gullivers was known as the club where stars ‘dropped in’ but it also gave the DJ a music policy to treasure. We played mostly imports – in those days they were much harder to track down – and have them paid for by the club. A fair proportion of the music I played were ‘exclusives’. I remember playing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Master Blaster (Jammin’)’ for the very first time ever in this country. The punters went wild, as I knew they would. However, what they didn’t know was the sophisticated equipment used to play it on was a portable cassette player, hastily yet intricately wired into my console! One false move and the lot would have taken a nose-dive.
Of all the artists he spent time with, Graham recalled a couple like they were yesterday. “I had popped out of the club to wish some friends in a nearby wine bar a good Christmas, and when I returned about ten o’clock, I spotted a tall, thin Black guy leaning against the bar nursing a drink. He asked if I was the jock and what time did the Club hot up. I stammered something like ‘quite soon’ before asking ‘aren’t you David Ruffin?’ We chatted and he explained he was visiting relatives but would like to come in New Year’s Eve. Good as his word, David came along and, as was our tradition on this night, celebrities in the house were welcomed by me on stage. Bill Fredericks of The Drifters got an acapella doo-wop thing going, but David, after being introduced to a wild applause, asked, ‘Ain’t I allowed to sing?’ Possibly the greatest soul singer in the world asking permission! Taking the microphone from me, he walked across the stage and wailed ‘I got sunshine on a cloudy day’. Can you imagine the uproar!” His other fond memories, some of which I shared included The Pips on the dancefloor teaching everyone how to ‘Hustle’. Then there was Sylvester being outrageous as he joked and rapped, while Diana Ross’s visit was short as she ‘just dropped by’, looking sensational and, to quote Graham, “being the sweetest one”.
A regular visitor was Marvin Gaye who “snuck in to sit in a corner away from eye-view, occasionally smiling but preferring to be left alone.” There was a memorable near-riot thanks to a very successful, handsome Jackson brother: “Following a mobbing at Leicester Square, Jermaine visited the club. Within minutes, tables flew, chairs were pushed over, as he hastily retreated with his minders and the club’s bouncers. How the kids, bless them, snuck into the club puzzles me to this day.” This I do remember because having survived hysterical youngsters en masse at The Empire, where our chauffeur drove the limousine onto the pavement waiting for us to run towards it, Hazel, Jermaine and I literally threw ourselves into the vehicle. I’m sure there were others from the Motown office with us but no names spring to mind as I write this. So, in hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have headed for Gullivers.
Stevie Wonder was another who visited Gullivers regularly when he was in town. However, one evening in 1980 was more special than others, as Graham recalled: “Stevie was over here with his Hotter Than July tour. And as a gesture to the less fortunate he announced he would play an extra charity gig on 8 September before leaving the country. His promoters, Marshall Arts, by way of thanks, hosted a party at Gullivers for him, his musicians and crew, Motown UK and visiting soul friends. During the entire evening Stevie joked and chatted with everyone present, from club staff to guests. Everything was informal but it’s times like these that have to be treasured. At roughly 4am I announced – after playing nearly every record in the club twice – that it was time to mosey along. Stevie was having none of it. ‘No! No! More champagne for everyone!’ I began the third trip round my record collection. At 5.30am still high on the adrenalin – and champagne – we eventually crawled home.”
I left around midnight, my usual exit time when work beckoned the next morning, although 10am was my usual start date. Working for Motown, I didn’t usually leave the office until 7pm-ish due to the time difference. The days were long but I loved every moment.
From what I can remember Graham Canter was the magnet for so many visiting artists. His musical knowledge was vast and his personality as big as his size. He also admitted that his repertoire could be a little ‘dodgy’ on occasions except on a Wednesday night, which was ‘live band night’. “And those participating groups and artists made the mouth water. Names like Ben E King, Heatwave, Edwin Starr, Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown, Clem Curtis but it wasn’t those who started out on stage but those who finished up in the jam sessions that was important. These sessions have also included Gladys Knight, Brass Construction, the Four Tops, Teena Marie, The Crusaders, The Spinners and many more who I’ve forgotten.”
I must have visited Gullivers once or twice a week, only staying past the bewitching hour on Friday or Saturday. Sometimes they were Motown ‘work’ nights, others personal visits with friends, out for the best time. Either way, many wonderful memories were stored away and kept through the years until the present day, enabling me to re-visit those heady times working for Motown, and a nightclub that shone brightly against the dark London skyline.
In 1988 Gullivers closed its doors at Down Street in Mayfair. In 1996 Graham “Fatman” Canter died in a London hospital.
(My heartfelt thanks to my dear friend Fiona McInnes for being wonderfully helpful by providing additional information and, with Graham Gold, some of the visuals, particularly the pose of him, Stevie Wonder and Motown’s promotion guy Les Spaine. Fiona hosts The Original Gullivers Nightclub/Disco, Down Street, Mayfair, London W1 Facebook page)