Revised December 2019
Mel Brookes rythm guitar, vocal
Mick Brookes lead guitar, vocal
Nick Cox bass guitar
Barry Dunn lead vocal
Terry Rhodes drums
When teenager Mel Brookes made a choice of joining a football team or a rock 'n' roll band, it was not the easiest of decisions. His mother was a keen piano player, and his father had played professionally for West Bromwich Albion! Ultimately, it was rock 'n' roll that won out but in many ways, playing in a band is similar to playing on a football team. Mel remembers those days well and has written his own story as follows;
My brother Mick and I learned to play on a home made guitar, made from a "Hobbies Kit" which Mick had for Christmas maybe 1958 when he was about 11 years old. He's two years younger than me by the way. Pop music was getting really popular with young people and this guy called Elvis Presley did his share of putting it on the map so a guitar was a good substitute instead of a pair of football boots.
We were both very practical and good at woodwork and Mick made more than a half decent job of knocking up this catgut stringed Spanish guitar. We set about learning some chords from Bert Weedon's "Play in a Day" book which came with the guitar kit. Problem was - one guitar - two people.
However, a lad in my class at school had an acoustic guitar which he accidentally sat on and broke the neck off the body. Problem solved, we payed him thirty bob (one pound fifty) for it - it had actually cost 19 guineas new, nearly 20 quid. It was soon repaired and just about playable so off we were. Then we discovered that Bert Weedon had simplified the chords in his Play in a Day book so we had to relearn them using all of our fingers in our new chord book.
About this time, a lad a little older than I from our school called Danny Robinson, had formed a band called "Danny Cannon and The Ramrods" (later "Herbies People"). These lads were good and they had good equipment too, Fender Strats, Vox AC30s, Shure microphones, all very, very expensive in their day. A "Stratocaster" (electric guitar) was about six months wages for the average man. We used to go and watch them play "The Shadows" stuff and the like in absolute awe. They were everyones catalyst.
Mick improved in leaps and bounds and we had reams of sheet music to have a go at as Mum could play the piano. The Shadows were our heroes at that time and Hank Marvin alone must have been responsible for the sale of tens of thousands of guitars and amps.
After about three or four years, Mick was offered a second hand "Burns Sonic" solid body guitar and a 15 watt Vox amplifier for 65 pound which he had to ask our dad the money for. Dad had been a pro footballer for West Bromwich Albion in his younger days and thought it a bit "puffy" messing about with music and not kicking a leather ball about but I think Mum could see at least some potential in us so Mick ended up with the guitar and amp. This paid off for him and he was soon gigging with "The Rocking Rustlers" as the youngest member of the band playing lead guitar.
By this time, a drummer Don Powell who was in the same class at school as Mick, had teamed up with guitarist Dave Hill in a Bilston based band called "The Vendors" with singer John Howells also from Bilston, along with a couple of other local lads. They went on to become The 'N Betweens. Then Noddy Holder joined on rhythm guitar and took over as vocalist when John Howells was ousted. Jimmy Lea was draughted in on bass and violin and they later became Ambrose Slade, then shortened to "Slade" - what happened to them I wonder!
"The Cobras" were formed in early 1964 by me and Terry Rhodes the drummer. He had been playing in another band called "The Jokers" from Coseley and had become a good friend of mine with our common interest in music. Mick Brookes (my brother) was lead guitarist with a band called "The Rocking Rustlers" also from Bilston. Mick left them and bought the singer with him and the four of us set about forming a new band playing more quality music as we felt we could do better.
Terry Rhodes remembered; "I bumped into Mel Brooks on my weekly pilgrimage to Stewarts & Lloyd's social club in Bilston we're we all would go to see the local talent. We got talking and I decided to leave The Jokers I drummed with and join The Cobras along with Mel, Mick Brooks his brother and Graham Williams on vocals. This was a strange combination as we had no bass guitarist. Not long after this the line up changed with Barry Dunn (vocals) and Nick Cox (bass) joining the band."
Mel Brookes; The majority of bands starting out then used to play rhythm and blues and basic rock 'n' roll as you get away with just a few chords but because of our previous access to sheet music via our mum's ability to play the piano this gave us a much wider understanding and abilities to play in different keys etc.
We wished to play more British bands chart music. Britain at that time had taken over as the world centre for "pop music" and the likes of The Beatles, The Hollies, The Searchers and many others were our heroes. Both Mick and myself had been playing guitar for a number of years and Mick was a natural musician (he has perfect pitch too) with that gift that you need to be born with just as the best footballers have a gift.
We rehearsed for months and months that year and Mick would not settle for second best, so everything had to be right before we went out on our first gig. One time our vocalist said that a guy he knew wanted to be our manager and before we knew it he was in, and gave us our name which we really didn't like, but by this time Mick had painted a "Cobra" on the bass drum skin so we became stuck with it.
This manager then tried to tell us what music to play so we told him to get on his bike etc. This was a valuable lesson as we found out later that often people would come up and offer to manage us although they knew absolutely nothing about "the scene".
Finally, we were ready and our first booking was at Morris Springs Social Club in Ettingshall in October 1964. I had not gigged before and was nervous to say the least, but we had a brilliant time as we played just about everything worth playing in the recent top twenty due to our intense rehearsing. I can remember this gig as if it were yesterday.
Soon we had loads of work and were playing two or three nights a week and we all had daytime jobs too so we were shattered every morning getting up for work. It took a few more months before our final line up was as per the photograph, as we had had musical differences with our vocalist who was very good but somewhat older than us, and a couple years when you're at that age makes a lot of difference. He was replaced by Barry Dunn.
We also had a problem getting a bass guitarist to fit in too until we found Nick Cox from Coseley. So here we were doing gigs locally, playing sometimes on the same Bill with stars the likes of Dusty Springfield, The Spencer Davis Group, and Amen Corner etc. at the local dance halls.
Terry Rhodes said; "Like most other groups we would gig anywhere we could, eventually getting noticed enough to do Ma Reagan's venues. Here we got to meet and work with some great talent including Dusty Springfield who turned up at Old Hill Plaza with Madeline Bell."
Mel Brookes; We used to play regularly at "The Plaza" in Old Hill, Dudley. Early in 1966, we shared the revolving stage there with The Spencer Davis Group who were currently top of the charts with their big hit record 'Keep On Running'. Their singer Stevie Winwood almost refused to go on stage when he saw how mad the audience was that night!
Terry Rhodes said; "I'll never forget that night with Spencer Davis at the Plaza. We were told to do our last number before they started the revolving stage. It jammed halfway with the crowd going crazy for Spencer Davis by now. We started to play another number and this bloke with a cranking handle came out to revolve the stage manually. At this, our guitarist threatened to hit him with his guitar. The guy on the handle was Robert Plant.
Mel Brookes; On another night Robert Plant came up and asked if he could appear on stage with us playing the "gob iron" (harmonica). Mick told him to clear off, adding; "We have a good band here, and we don't want you spoiling it!"
I also remember one Saturday night we had a gig at the Majestic Dance Hall in Wellington Shropshire and top of the bill was a Manchester band called "The Factotums". Their manager was Andrew Loog Oldham who looked after The Rolling Stones so we were expecting R&B from them. We couldn't have been more wrong as they kicked off with this Beach Boys style music with fabulous vocal harmonies and a great sound with Fender amps and AKG microphones.
We were blown away with them and we made friends with them that night and passed on their name to "Astra" agency who were the biggest in the Wolverhampton area. I believe they had over eighty bands on their books at that time so The Factotums picked up some work around here due to our recommendations.
One Sunday evening we went off to see The Factotums at Tettenhall Working Mens Club and as we stood at the bar The Black Diamonds were standing by us and discussing that they could do that style of music. A few months later The Californians were born from the Black Diamonds.
One evening, I was personally very lucky, or unlucky, depending whichever way you look at it. We had gone to collect our gear from the singer's house in Bradford Street Walsall as we had a gig at Mossley youth club Walsall that evening. It was April 1st 1966 and I was the driver of our Ford Thames 15 CWT van. I parked up and went round the back to open the doors when "BANG". A car had run straight into me squashing my legs against the back of the van.
The luck was, that it was a rear engine car and my van had split bumpers that I stood between. The van shot forward about 15 feet with the impact and the car, an NSU Spyder had a collapsed front due to the rear engine. It stung a bit I can tell you, and I lost 4 months off work with a broken right leg. I consider myself very lucky not to have lost both of my legs in that accident. That's fate I suppose! - and the reason I am sitting (in the centre of the group photograph shown) as we had already booked the photographer for that following week.
We had a brilliant time for nearly three years until we decided to call it a day. Mick had an offer to go "pro" with The Californians and Nick was off to art school full time so we figured without these key members we couldn't continue. It was some of the best times of my life and we even had a fan club of really lovely girls who followed us around and they cried when we gave it up.
Mick went on to play lead guitar in 1967 with The Californians just a few months after they were formed and to be their musical brains and who in my opinion were quite mediocre until he joined them. I was always pretty good at the technical stuff and joined them a year later as roadie.
I could look after the gear properly and would be the extra voice if they were to record at The BBC etc. which was quite often. And then some of the lads suggested I joined them properly but was denied by one member saying we'll never replace him with such a good roadie again.
I left them after 18 months but a couple of years later, after I was married with a baby, the lead singer left and I stood in for him for about 6 months. I was working in the day and gigging at night and couldn't make it permanent and so they found a replacement vocalist. Nick Cox went on to join Jimmy Powell as one of his Dimensions.
Until recently I was still in the business with a solo act, and so is my daughter. In 2008, her agent suggested I go for an audition with a 1960s cover band, namely "Session 60" who was looking for a replacement lead vocalist. This was in September of that year and I went along to the drummers (ex Denny Lane and Diplomats) house in Warwickshire to meet the other guys. I knew most every song they were playing and was more or less offered the job.
When I enquired who I was replacing, I was told it was Kelly Groucutt, one time bass player and singer with E.L.O. (The Electric Light Orchestra). Kelly was leaving that Christmas to spend more time with his family. The band wished to be ready for a New Years Eve gig with me. Anyway I considered the job when I got home and the logistics of an 84 mile round trip just to rehearse, of which there would have to be many. So I rang back and turned the job down.
Kelly did his last Gig at Coseley Working Men's Club on 20th December that year (Coseley was his home town). He sadly died a few weeks later in February - he was only my age at the time, in his early 60s.
So in conclusion, I consider that Danny Cannon and The Ramrods were responsible for the whole "group scene" in and around Bilston area and without Danny, there would probably not have been many, if any, of the many bands that sprung up there.
Thanks also to Terry Rhodes for sending additional photos and information. Terry is still involved in the entertainment business today along with his wife who is known as the popular Black Country comedienne "Our Trace" See www.ourtrace.co.uk
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