Updated September, 2013Neil Morris (Cassin) lead vocal
The first half of the 1960s saw the formation of many young rock 'n' roll bands throughout the U.K. following the massive popularity of guitar-based groups such as 'Cliff Richard and The Shadows' and of course 'The Beatles'. Birmingham was no exception to this with aspiring Sparkhill vocalist Neil Cassin soon setting his plans into action. Neil takes up the story; "Early in 1963, I formed my first group, having advertised for musicians to back me via the Birmingham Evening Mail. The first reply was from Pat Pegg who turned out to be a very tight drummer - nice and tasty. Then came the bassist Dave Wadley, who soon showed his class. We then looked round the scene for a lead guitarist".
Tony Iommi was born on February 19th, 1948 in Heathfield Road General Hospital near Birmingham city centre. Of Italian ancestry, he lived with his parents in Bennett's Road, Washwood Heath until he was about ten when they moved into a small shop from which they sold groceries and cigarettes in Park Lane Aston - one of the roughest areas of Birmingham. Tony recalls; "You could be walking down the road and get the shit kicked out of you or even stabbed by gangs. I started exercising, doing weights and stuff, because I wanted to be able to protect myself." Attending Birchfield Road School, he befriended a big kid named Albert Chapman with whom he formed his own gang - more for protection than anything else. It was also at the school where he saw a younger student John Osbourne for the first time. They didn't get along but years later, fate would see their paths cross again.
Being musically inclined, the first instrument Tony Iommi learned to play was the accordion. This was of course later abandoned when he first heard rock 'n' roll played on the radio by groups like The Shadows. Tony's first guitar was a left-handed 'Watkins Rapier' with a Watkins Westminster amplifier that his mom paid about 20 pounds for. Tony said; "I'd listen to the Top 20 and wait for the Shadows to come on. Later, I got their album and learned the songs from playing it over and over. I've always tried to make my guitar playing melodic. That stayed with me and it has always been a part of my songwriting." Tony remembers getting together with some much older musicians to play his first gig in a local pub. He couldn't wait to leave school and join a band full-time.
Neil Cassin of The Rockin' Chevrolets remembers his first meeting with Tony Iommi; "We tried a few lead guitarists who weren't quite up to it. We carried on looking and then we had an amazing stroke of luck. We used to rehearse on Monday's in an old pub in Brum called 'The Green Man' in Dartmouth Street. The previous Sunday evening, Pat Pegg and Dave Wadley were watching a band in Aston. They had a word with the lead guitarist and invited him to our rehearsal. The result of which we had our guitarist - fifteen year old Tony Iommi!" They still needed a rhythm guitarist to complete the line-up. Neil says; "Tony also had a friend, Alan Meredith, who played rhythm guitar in the 'Bruce Welch' style. So there you have it, the jigsaw was complete."
Tony Iommi's own memories of the Rockin' Chevrolets is as follows; "To my mind, they were really professional. They could play all The Shadows songs perfectly and they also did a lot of rock 'n' roll. I'd never been a big fan of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, or Buddy Holly, but I now got into that music as well." Neil Cassin remembered; "Tony was a very versatile guitarist. He was playing blistering rock 'n' roll with us plus 'Shadows' stuff. He also loved jazz, in particular 'Joe Pass'. We started getting bookings very quickly, including several resident nights."
While The Rockin' Chevrolets were starting to earn some money, Tony's parents were a bit nervous about him playing in pubs and getting home so late at night. Tony remembered the band made things easier for him by coming over to his house to meet his mum. "She came down and made them all bacon sandwiches as she did in later years with Black Sabbath. She'd always ask them if they wanted something to eat. Always. That's the sort of mother she was."
The Rockin' Chevrolets were without doubt a good live band as their bookings soon began to take them all over Birmingham. Neil Cassin said; "Further down the line we were taken on by a man called Louis Brunston. He was the first man to put on jazz at the Town Hall, Birmingham in 1946. We then started getting more work, including the famous 'Ma Regan Circuit' of venues". The group were all wearing matching red lame suits by this time with some of their bookings to include weddings or social clubs, sometimes playing to an audience who were more than twice their age. On those occasions, there would often be the inevitable complaints of "Ooh, you're too loud!" recalled Tony.
The rare photo of The Rockin' Chevrolets line-up shown at the top of this page is the only picture known to exist of this historically significant group. I'm grateful to Neil Cassin for his permission to show it on the BrumBeat web site. The photo was first published in Laurie Hornsby's excellent book Brum Rocked! in 1999.
Because things were looking to become more serious with The Rockin' Chevrolets, Tony Iommi decided it was time to get a better guitar. "Burns was one of the few companies that made left-handed guitars so I bought a 'Burns Trisonic'. It had a control on it called 'The Trisonic Sound' whatever that was. I only played it until I eventually found a left-handed Fender Stratocaster. And I had a Selmer Amplifier with an echo in it."
Despite keeping busy with The Rockin' Chevrolets, Tony Iommi who was by now 16 and no longer at school, started working at various day jobs to earn extra money. He now had his first serious girlfriend who was also the sister of the Rockin' Chevrolets guitarist Alan Meredith. The Rockin' Chevrolets had been together for about two years but found themselves competing with more than a hundred other local groups for recognition by the record companies. As was the case with most bands, there were inevitable disagreements and clashes of personality with The Rockin' Chevrolets line-up being no exception to this.
The end of the road for The Rockin' Chevrolets came in 1965 when Alan Meredith was fired from the group. Tony Iommi decided to leave shortly after. Neil Cassin remembers; "I started getting restless then and left the Chevs. Around six months later I wanted to get back into performing. I auditioned for a lead vocalist's job with a band called 'The Surf Riders' and stayed for about a year before forming another band called 'Aquarius'. We played in social clubs and etc."
Tony Iommi soon joined another local band called 'The Birds & The Bees' who were due to go over to Europe. "I decided to really go for it, quit my job and become a professional musician" said Tony. He was working as a welder at the time but while on his last day at the factory, he had a terrible accident that very nearly ended his career as a guitarist - but that's another story (see Black Sabbath). As for the other members of the Rockin' Chevrolets, it's unknown what became of them.
Neil Cassin can rightfully claim to be the first vocalist that Tony Iommi performed with in a professional band. Those who followed included famous names such as Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, and Glenn Hughes amongst others. In this respect, Neil's place in rock music history is now assured. "It was a time of great fun as well as the great music. For all you music lovers out there, KEEP ON ROCKIN!" Neil Cassin 2011.
Many thanks go to Neil and Darren Cassin for assistance in writing this story of The Rockin' Chevrolets. Additional comments from Tony Iommi are selected from his 2011 autobiography.
Copyright © John R Woodhouse
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