SOLIHULL - BIRMINGHAM
Updated May, 2015Al Jackson lead vocal
The Applejacks are highly significant in West Midlands music history as the first Birmingham or 'Brum Beat' group to have a top ten hit record. They should not be confused with the late 1950s American recording group of the same name. Unfortunately, despite a promising debut and having a strong Beatles connection, The Applejacks moment in the spotlight was over all too soon.
This group, formed in Solihull in 1961, were originally known as 'The Crestas' and then 'The Jaguars'. At that time the line-up consisted of guitarist Phil Cash (born October 9, 1947), guitarist Martin Baggot (born October 20, 1947), drummer Gerald Freeman (born May 24, 1947) and bass guitarist Megan Davies (born March 25, 1944); all members of the 1st Olton Scouts Troop. By the end of 1961, keyboarder Don Gould (born March 23, 1947) was also added to the line-up.
Megan Davies remembers; "At the age of fifteen, I moved from Girl Guides to assist with Wolf Cubs. In 1960, the 1st Olton Scout Group were preparing a 'Gang Show' and when asked Can anyone play an instrument? a few of us took up the challenge. Martin Baggott, Phil Cash and I possessed guitars and Gerry Freeman was the obvious choice as the drummer because he was lead drummer in the Scout band. We all got together to perform a couple of skiffle numbers; 'Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley' and 'John Henry'. Thus from a little wooden scout hut in Jubilee Park, Olton, Solihull emerged the 'core' of The Applejacks."
Upon later graduating to electric instruments, a bass guitarist was now considered essential. Megan recalled; "Cliff and The Shadows was definitely the way to go. It was obvious then, that one of us would have to change to bass guitar. "Well, you're the worst guitarist, Megan. You can play bass!" I'm not sure that it was actually said in so many words, but that's the gist of how I got the job."
As they had no singer, the band played instrumental songs by groups like 'The Shadows' and 'The Tornados'. Things changed when vocalist Al Jackson (Harry Llewellyn - born April 21, 1945) joined in 1962 and The Applejacks soon became a popular attraction with a regular residency at Solihull Civic Hall. They played a lot of American style rock 'n' roll; Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles etc. and were unusual for the time in having a female bass guitarist (Megan Davies).
The Applejacks caught the first wave of the 'beat boom' when they were signed up by talent scouts from the Decca Records company in late 1963. From that point on, things were to move fast for the young group. In February of 1964 they had their first record released on a single. 'Tell Me When' was composed by songwriters Les Reed and former school teacher Geoff Stephens. The record was a brilliant and catchy composition - fitting the times perfectly. Produced by Mike Smith, it peaked at Number 7 in the U.K. and remained in the charts for 13 weeks. Some of the band members were still going to school at the time!
The success of Tell Me When brought The Applejacks national TV appearances on shows like 'Ready Steady Go!' and 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' where the group made friends with The Beatles who they met during a rehearsal. Al Jackson remembers Paul McCartney asking them if they had a follow-up record to Tell Me When to which Al replied "No". Paul said; "Would you like one then?" John Lennon and Paul McCartney provided the Applejacks with a previously un-published Beatles song titled 'Like Dreamers Do' (one of the earliest Lennon/McCartney compositions). Hardly believing their luck, The Applejacks gratefully recorded the song with it being issued as the A-side of their follow-up single.
The Applejacks provided an excellent interpretation of the song and to their credit, developed their own arrangement rather than just 'copying' the Beatles demo. Hopes were high as recordings of Beatles compositions by other artists had proven very successful but despite this, the Applejacks version of Like Dreamers Do was to climb only as far as Number 20 in the U.K. record charts.
Nonetheless, 1964 proved to be a very busy year for The Applejacks. The group appeared in the British pop music film 'Just For You' which also featured Freddie and The Dreamers and Peter and Gordon. In addition to regular TV apperances, The Applejacks performed live on the coveted 'New Musical Express' annual poll winners concert at Wembley. Perhaps even more memorable was when Megan Davies and drummer Gerry Freeman were married in a highly publicized wedding that was attended by hundreds of screaming local teenagers!
The Applejacks recorded an album for Decca Records under the direction of future Gary Glitter producer Mike Leander. This self-titled album had a simple yet refreshing production style which suited the group well but unfortunately did not sell enough copies to make the album charts. A new Applejacks single was also released by Decca but the awkward 'Three Little Words' stalled at Number 23 and was to be their last showing in the record charts. Other singles were recorded by The Applejacks but even a very good version of The Kinks 'I Go To Sleep' could not reverse the group's chart decline.
By 1966, The Applejacks had accepted a lucrative contract in cabaret to perform on board the luxury Trans-Atlantic ocean liners R.M.S. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I and II. Although a good move for the band financially, chartwise it may have proved to be their undoing. The Cunard engagements isolated them from their fans and made the promotion of any new records by the group all but impossible.
Changes in the group's line-up also became a problem. Lead vocalist/front-man Al Jackson left and was replaced by John Washington. Don Gould left in 1967 for a successful career in music production and drummer Gerry Freeman also left to become an in-demand session drummer. He was replaced by Paul Willetts.
After being dropped by Decca, The Applejacks switched to CBS Records for their final single release titled 'You've Been Cheatin' that was a cover of a soul song by The Impressions. Martin Baggott was the next to leave and he later emigrated to California after giving up his music career. Megan Davies also left and joined a Brum group called Mongrel - the same band that Roy Wood re-formed as the chart-topping 'Wizzard' after he left the Electric Light Orchestra (see The Move).
In this way, The Applejacks faded from the scene, but their place in BrumBeat history is assured as they were the first local group to make a big impact on the national record charts and thus open the door for many other talented groups and performers from the West Midlands.
A historic event occurred in Birmingham on December 11, 2010 when for the first time in more than 40 years, the original line-up of The Applejacks re-formed for a charity concert. The occasion was recorded for a DVD which can now be ordered on-line at nominal cost. To buy a copy, visit Tony Sheppard's web site at www.splinters-the-novel.com/buy-now/the-applejacks-reunion-concert-dvd-2010.
Copyright © John R Woodhouse
To see a recent interview of Megan Davies exclusive to BrumBeat.net click HERE.
(highest UK chart position in brackets)