revised November, 2015John Howells lead vocal, harmonica (left 1966)
This band would form the foundation of what became one of the most famous and successful British groups of the 1970s. The 'N Betweens were based in Wolverhampton, having band members originating from various locations within the industrial 'Black Country' west of Birmingham. The line-up were well known locally as an exciting live act who performed throughout the West Midlands during the 1960s.
The origin of The 'N Betweens dates back to 1963 when singer/guitarist John Howells and guitarist Mick Marson along with drummer Don Powell, formed a band called 'The Vendors'. Donald Powell was born in Bilston, West Midlands on September 10, 1946. He learned to play drums while in the scouts and later met Howells and Marson who were already performing together. Don recalled; "I couldn't afford to buy my own kit but when I was fourteen I had a mate called Dave Bowdley and his dad bought him an Olympic drum kit. He couldn't get into playing so rather than let the drum kit go to waste Dave said I could borrow it whenever I wanted to." When Don left school he got a job at a foundry and soon bought his own drum set on hire-purchase.
Guitarist Johnny Shane joined next from Johnny Shane and The Cadillacs. Because Shane was a superior guitarist, John Howells gave up the guitar to become the lead singer and front-man of the Vendors. The music performed by The Vendors at this time was songs by Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane, and Gene Vincent along with Chuck Berry style rock 'n' roll. The group would perform at youth clubs, weddings, and private parties. Before a reliable bass guitarist could be found, Johnny Shane left to re-form his old band and was replaced by David Hill.
Dave Hill was born on April 4, 1946 near Kingsbridge in Devon with his family moving to Wolverhampton by the time he was a year old. He was not well regarded by his teachers at school and his disruptive energy would not be channelled until he was 12 when his father bought him a guitar. Dave's interest was sparked by one of his friends who had a plastic 'Elvis Presley Guitar'. Dave said; "It had a special box on the fretboard with buttons to push to get chords easily. I persuaded him to take the box off and we learned some chords from a guitar manual."
Dave Hill took lessons from local jazz guitarist Brian Close and soon formed a band with his friends called 'The Young Ones'. They lasted until its members left school to start jobs with Dave finding a position as an office boy but he also hung out with local musicians and maintained an ambition to one day "turn professional".
The Vendors were impressed by Dave's raunchy guitar style so after he joined, they concentrated more on blues and R&B type material with John Howells playing harmonica and the group projecting an image on-stage similar to that of The Rolling Stones. In 1964, The Vendors recorded some songs that were pressed onto a limited number of acetates at Domino Sound Studios in Wolverhampton and these represent their earliest recordings.
By the end of 1964, the group name was changed to 'The 'N Betweens' and they had signed to the Wolverhampton based Astra Agency who secured them bookings throughout the Midlands. A regular Monday night residency for the band was at The Plaza in Kings Heath, Birmingham with the group by this time, playing almost every night and thus deciding to give up their day jobs. They had also acquired a good bass guitarist in Dave 'Cass' Jones and a smart image by wearing velvet jackets and cuban heeled boots.
It was during this period that the 'N Betweens shared some bookings with 'Steve Brett and The Mavericks' (see Steve Brett and The Mavericks) with Don Powell becoming friendly with Noddy Holder from that group. According to Don; "Noddy was too good of a singer to be in a back-up group".
In early 1965, Bobby Graham who had played drums with 'Joe Brown and The Bruvvers' and now a talent scout, auditioned the 'N Betweens at the Le Metro Club in Birmingham. The result was a recording contract for the 'N Betweens and the group travelled down to Pye Studios in London to record some songs. Well known session guitarist Jimmy Page was booked to play on the recordings but he was apparently not required although he may have appeared on the 'N Betweens recording of 'Little Nightingale'. The sessions resulted in four songs recorded by the 'N Betweens being issued on an EP but only in France.
Despite the 'N Betweens local success as a support band to many famous acts such as The Fourmost, Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame and The Yardbirds, and also attracting a large following of their own, Don Powell and Dave Hill were dissatisfied with the group. They were the only members not to have steady girlfriends and were irritated when the others would be late for rehearsals or fail to show up. Their guitarist Mick Marson had also got involved with the local 'mod' gangs - an association despised by both Don and Dave.
The 'N Betweens were sent over to some bookings in Germany and while on the ferry they met up with Steve Brett and The Mavericks. It was on this trip that Dave Hill and Don Powell first talked to Noddy Holder about forming their own group with Don asking Noddy if he'd be interested to join them. Noddy recalled; "I had a drink with Don and Dave on the ferry and they told me they weren't happy with their band and wanted to split from the rest. They asked me if I was interested in joining them and I said I'd think about it."
A fateful event occurred when the 'N Betweens bass guitarist Cass Jones decided to leave the band at the end of 1965 for a career in the wholesale fruit business. For his replacement, the Astra Agency placed advertisements for auditions that were held at The Blue Flame Club, later known as The Lafayette Casino in Wolverhampton. Because the 'N Betweens were well known locally, there was no shortage of applicants. One of them was 16 year old Jim Lea who had little experience as a performer but showed amazing talent as a musician.
James Whild Lea was born on June 14, 1949 in Wolverhampton and came from a musical family. He learned to play piano and violin as well as read music at an early age, progressing so well that he was soon playing violin with the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra. After seeing the Rolling Stones on TV he went out and bought a guitar which he mastered easily.
Jim's first band was an amateur group called 'Nick and The Axe Men' who were in Jim's own words; "One of those sort of bands who spent more time practicing than playing in front of an audience". Nick and The Axe Men were styled on 'The Shadows' but were not destined to go far once Jim realized none of the other members were willing to take the chance and "turn professional".
Jim Lea was an admirer of the 'N Betweens and thought of them as a local version of the Rolling Stones so he did not hesitate to apply for their audition. He had to borrow a bass guitar and amplifier but his talent stood out amongst the other applicants. Jim recalled; "The first song I played was 'Mr Pitiful' by Otis Reading and then a Don Covey number called 'See-Saw'. I played very fast and then told them I could play violin too and even a bit of cello and that I could sight-read. I think they were impressed but they didn't tell me I had the job." Although no one was selected that day, Don Powell wrote down Jim Lea's name.
Soon after the auditions, Dave Hill and Don Powell met Noddy Holder by chance in Beatties cafe in Wolverhampton. They told him they were leaving the 'N Betweens to start their own group and asked Noddy who was no longer with Steve Brett and The Mavericks to join them. Noddy agreed so the three then enlisted Jim Lea to play bass guitar. Unfortunately for them, Don and Dave were still contracted to play a number of bookings with the 'N Betweens along with John Howells and Mick Marson.
Rock history was made in March 1966 when Noddy, Dave, Don and Jim played together for the first time at the 'Three Men In A Boat' pub near Noddy's house in Walsall. Dave Hill said; "We just played together, the four of us, for the first time and it was really exciting. We played some soul numbers and it worked out great with Nod on vocals and two lead guitars. It was a secret rehearsal without Johnny Howells... we never told him".
An awkward situation now existed with the 'N Betweens divided into two factions and several weeks would go by before guitarist Mick Marson was edged out in favour of Noddy Holder. Legend has it that this caused a nasty incident in Bilston High Street that almost resulted in Don and Dave getting beaten up by the mod gang that Marson belonged to at the time!
Although John Howells had a fine voice, his bluesy vocal style and image on stage was at odds with the direction the rest of the group wanted to go into. Because they still had a lot of bookings with Howells, their first show together was in April of 1966 at Walsall Town Hall. Noddy sang lead on a few songs with Howells doing the rest. It was a frustrating arrangement for Noddy Holder and came to a head in June 1966 when The 'N Betweens were sent to Newquay in Cornwall for some bookings and ended up playing a show in Plymouth without Howells.
When John Howells finally left to join the group 'Blues Ensemble' (later known as The Wellington Kitch Jump Band), there was concern that the 'N Betweens following would turn against them, but instead the four-piece group started to attract a growing number of supporters. Don Powell would go to The Diskery record shop in Birmingham and find obscure R&B and Motown recordings for the group to learn with Jim Lea working out the chords and arrangements.
Interestingly, there was some discussion to replace John Howells with a young aspiring vocalist called Robert Plant who was fronting a local group called Listen. Noddy Holder had sometimes worked as a 'roadie' for Listen and transported them to gigs in his dad's window cleaning van. Though Robert had a good following of female fans, he was considered as more of a "dancer" than a "singer" by the 'N Betweens at the time.
A big break for the 'N Betweens came when they were performing at a club in London and were spotted by the eccentric American record producer Kim Fowley who a few years earlier had helped Birmingham group The Rockin' Berries on their road to fame. After proclaiming the 'N Betweens as "The next big thing", Fowley arranged to have them record some songs at Regent Sound studios and the result of this was their single titled 'You Better Run' backed with 'Evil Witchman' being released on the Columbia Records label in August of 1966.
You Better Run was a cover of a song by the American group 'The Young Rascals' but the single did not sell much except in the West Midlands area where the 'N Betweens had a large following. Promotional copies of another song titled 'Security', originally recorded by Otis Reading was issued in the USA only. The West Midlands group Listen (whose singer was future Led Zeppelin star Robert Plant) also recorded a version of You Better Run in 1966 for a single but it sold no better than the 'N Betweens version!
Kim Fowley also had the group record other songs that remained unreleased, including 'Ugly Girl' on which Fowley sang and was probably made up on the spot. The 'N Betweens association with Kim Fowley lasted only a short time and he soon lost interest and returned to California.
The 'N Betweens continued to play dates across the country as well as having regular bookings at the Silver Blades Ice Rink and the Garden of Eden Irish Club in Birmingham. They also played support for The Move at Wolverhampton Civic Hall.
In April 1967, The 'N Betweens recorded some songs at Abbey Road Studios in London under direction of Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith but the tracks remained unreleased and it would be two years before the band again entered a recording studio. Noddy Holder had yet to develop the tonsil-shredding vocal style that he would become famous for! (see Ambrose Slade).
Sources: 'Slade' by George Tremlett 1975; 'Feel The Noise' by Chris Charlesworth 1984; 'Who's Crazee Now?' by Noddy Holder 1999; 'The Genesis Of Slade CD' John Howells 1996; plus assistance from Johnny Shane (John Howell) and Chris Selby.
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