1 Kingly Street — The Cat’s Whisker

1 Kingly Street — Photograph: Jackie Hopfinger

How can medieval field patterns determine the nature of a 1950s dance craze? We find the answer to this question most vividly in the basement of number 1 Kingly Street, a narrow building that lies just metres from the western edge of Soho.

Until the 1680s much of this area was known as Six Acre Close — essentially two adjoining fields, one of which at least was a market garden. These fields and the boundaries between them were laid out in the middle ages. Morgan’s map of 1682 shows what is now Wardour Street as the western boundary of built up London and just to the south Pickadilly (as it was spelled then) already a busy neighbourhood of large houses.

Between Six Acre Close and Pickadilly, where Golden Square is today, was a plague pit — “a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner”, according to the 19th century politician Thomas Macaulay, “a pit into which the dead carts had nightly shot corpses by scores.”

Picking a careful route past the plague pit and between the two fields of Six Acre Close was a footpath that led from Pickadilly to St Marylebone. Along this path farm workers would have carried baskets of fruit and vegetables down to Pickadilly, skirting to the south of Leicester Fields and over to the new market at Covent Garden. Between Six Acre Close and the plague pit was Gelding Close, a pasture set aside for geldings. But this picture of rural life was not to last much longer. London was advancing.

William Lownes, who owned the field to the east of the path was the first to call in the builders. As part of the Lownes development was the laying down of a road along part of the footpath which became King, and later Kingly Street and a terrace of houses built on its east side around 1690. The boundary between Six Acre and Gelding Closes lay between what became numbers 2 and 3 Kingly Street which may account for the narrowness of the first two buildings on the street compared with the others. These, and the adjoining buildings along what is now Beak Street were being developed by Martha Axtell who owned Gelding Close.

While the Soho that was emerging around Soho Square, Greek Street and Frith Street had some design coherence to it, further to the west and south things were more varied. A number of different landowners, speculators and builders were throwing up a variety of dwellings — some substantial for the gentry, others far less so for artisans and traders, and many of them not particularly well constructed. Along the network of narrow streets and courts, equally narrow buildings were being built and within just a few decades totally rebuilt given the poor materials and workmanship that went into them. By 1730, Kingly Street had been rebuilt and was developing its character as an area for artisans and immigrants.

Until they were demolished to make way for the building of Regent Street, buildings on the west side of Kingly Street offered “very good Houses fit for Gentry” according to one account of the time. Those on the east side were all again rebuilt in the early nineteenth century but retained their original more densely-packed scale. Into the twentieth century they provided ideal accommodation for the rag trade, instrument makers, repairers and other tradespeople seeking compact affordable workshop spaces.

In 1957, aspiring photographer Ken Russell hurried up to Kingly Street from Piccadilly tube. Over a decade before he made his name as an acclaimed director of films about music — from Tchaikovsky to Tommy — the freelancer had gained critical acclaim for his photographs of Teddy Girls, capturing this uniquely British youth subculture for pieces in the Picture Post and Daily Mirror. By his own admission, he was “always into the latest thing” which took him through the door and down into the basement of 1 Kingly Street.

“I remember the place was crowded with young kids when I arrived. It was pretty late, but not after midnight. In those days, midnight was the witching hour; things closed up after that. I did not speak to anyone, but I do remember the atmosphere was very jolly. Wholesome would be a good word.”

The Cat’s Whisker was one of Soho’s new coffee bars and one of the first to have a juke box. The basement was smaller even than the 2i’s on Old Compton Street, and with the juke box, a small stage and a coffee bar to accommodate, that left very little space for people to meet, talk and dance. So they did the hand jive.

“And the reason they were jiving with their hands,” Russell explained, “was just because there was precious little room to do it with their feet. Everyone was doing it, which was quite a bizarre sight. The craze just fascinated me. It seemed like a strange novelty, but it really caught on. There were quite a few variations they could do, like one called the mashed potato. There was always plenty of energy in it, too — it was quite inventive and terribly rhythmic.”

By day Leon Bell was a hairdresser from South London, but in the evening he was leader of one of Britain’s first rock and roll groups — the Bell Cats. Their fame may have been short-lived, and spread not much further than the Cat’s Whisker and Wimbledon Palais, but Leon Bell and the Bell Cats are credited with inventing the hand jive at this tiny Kingly Street club. This dance craze spread across the world and gains a prominent place in the John Travolta movie Grease — but it was a product not of 1950s Americana but of design constraints imposed by medieval field patterns on speculative building in the 1680s.

An improbable legacy of the hand jive was the step up it gave to women’s jazz in Britain. In the 1950s jazz was very much a man’s business. The second world war provided opportunities for all women bands, and a small group of women musicians made their name in this period. But it wasn’t to last — in the jazz world women’s role was limited to singing and providing table service in some of the clubs. For example, in Melody Maker’s 1954 readers’ poll of dance band and jazz musicians there were eighteen musician categories, with up to forty names in each of them. The only two women whose names appeared were Winifred Atwell — ranked number 7 for piano — and Betty Smith — number 11 for tenor sax.

Both women were amongst the best instrumentalists of their age. While Winifred Atwell made her name as an entertainer, gaining a succession of number one hits in Britain, Betty Smith — dubbed ‘the girl with sax appeal’ — developed a career as a solo instrumentalist and band leader. Coming from a musical family she first picked up the instrument when she was nine years old. “There was a trombone tradition in my family,” she said. “They were all trombonists except me. I would have been one too, but my arms were too short.”

During the war she played in mainly all women big bands, gravitating to small-group jazz combining roles as inventive improvisational soloist, vocalist, and entertaining band leader. As her obituary in The Independent read: “It was rare to find a woman jazz musician in the Fifties. Even more rare to find one who played hotter jazz than her colleagues.”

Her recording of ‘Hand Jive’ in 1958 drew on her skills as a vocalist and entertainer, and was quickly seized on by London Records as an opportunity to cash in on a craze that they described as “destined to become the biggest teenage fad in the history of the record business.” So determined was London that they persuaded The Betty Smith Group to record an entire album — Music for Hand Jiving.

A confident London Records pushed the single ‘Hand Jive’ in the US — a bold move given the extremely poor performance of British artists in America’s Billboard chart. The record gained some attention, but then radio DJs flipped the record and it was that song — her instrumental cover of the Rogers and Hart classic Bewitched — that made the Top 50, and made Betty Smith the first British musician to break the American charts.

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Song

Hand Jive — The Betty Smith Quintet

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Sources

Melody Maker readers’ poll 1954: http://henrybebop.co.uk/mm1954.htm

Steve Voce (2011) Betty Smith: Saxophonist and singer hailed for her improvisational panache, The Independent, Friday 28 January 2011: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/betty-smith-saxophonist-and-singer-hailed-for-her-improvisational-panache-2196497.html

Betty Smith’s “Hand Jive”: The hit that never was: http://musicweird.blogspot.com/2015/02/betty-smiths-hand-jive-hit-that-never.html

Peter Vacher (2011) Betty Smith Obituary, The Guardian Wed 9 Mar 2011 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/mar/09/betty-smith-obituary

Leo Benedictus (2009) Ken Russell’s Best Shot, The Guardian, Thu 8 Jan 2009 https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jan/08/best-shot-photography

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