IT’S not unusual for there to be a group of musicians living in the same town, performing at different venues at different times and taking different career paths.
Llanelli has had its fair share of musicians, some went on to greatness, and some stayed local and stuck to their roots. What sets apart those who dominated the world’s stages and arenas was something we are now told is the X-Factor, but at a time when opportunities were few and no big shows to sell your wares in front of some of the most powerful producers in the world decisions had to be made.
Performers while at grass roots level in the clubs could make those decisions but inevitably if they went beyond the Severn Bridge, they fell into the clutches of managers and agents.
Take Llanelli, for example. Some of the names that left town and hit the big time include Dorothy Squires, Terry Williams (Dire Straits), Deke Leonard, MAN, Keith Hodge, Melody Maker ‘Musician of the Year’ in the 1970’s. In 1973 Dorothy Squires was billed to star at the ‘Cabaret Candlelight’ in Market Street. Yes, Llanelli had nightclubs where bands appeared, people danced and watched as stars like Dickie Henderson, Frankie Vaughan, Tiny Tim, Peters and Lee, Diana Dors and Acker Bilk ventured into town.
In later years Madness, Status Quo, Elvis Costello and others would frequent the Glen Ballroom.
Up in the Valleys Pontypridd was no different. Young performers touted their wares in bars and clubs for as little as a couple of pounds and a few beers. In the late 1950s a band called Tommy Scott and The Senators were performing when their singer Tommy Redman decided that he wasn’t cut out to sing at the YMCA to young audiences. It left the band with a predicament as to who they could replace him with. Bassist Vernon Hopkins knew whom he could ask. He hotfooted it to a neighbouring pub where a young teddy boy named Thomas Woodward was performing. With the offer of a couple of bottles of light ale and a couple of quid he joined the band on stage and according to Vernon, soon began to develop his style.
Fast forward and the band were managed by Godfrey and Glastonbury and had associations with Joe Meek of Telstar fame. Having been unable to secure a record deal the band returned to Wales. The record states that Tom was spotted at the Top Hat in Cwmtillery, by Gordon Mills, a London-based manager originally from South Wales. Mills became Tom’s manager, and took the young singer to London, renaming him Tom Jones. The Senators became the Playboys, and later still the Squires. We caught up with Vernon Hopkins and asked him to summarise the time he claims he discovered and aided Sir Tom on the road to stardom.
Vernon is also 80. The pair were born a few months apart. They shared a love of music. They did the hard miles playing in the bars and clubs. Vernon paints a picture of a successful local band that were already getting noticed and who had honed their skills to the point where like many bands of that time were destined for the big time. Vernon even met Elvis Presley in America when the band were touring, with Elvis telling him how much he admired his guitar playing. When Vernon and the band agreed to add Tom to the line-up, they were looking forward to a great time together. Record deals beckoned. Remember that agent-manager who might have different ideas? Remember the Beatles and the members who didn’t get taken along. It is a story that repeats itself throughout history. Mills made Sir Tom an international star along with another of his other protégé Engelbert Humperdinck.
Vernon is a modest man who, given different circumstances could have been commanding or certainly sharing in the huge sums of money Sir Tom has over the years IF and it is an IF, different decisions had been taken, different attitudes prevailed. London in the 1960s was a place where you could make it or where you could end up in a bedsit depending on the cut of your jib or the whimsy of an agent or manager. One member of the band ended up in a mansion and the other the latter.
As Sir Tom approaches his eightieth birthday, he may not want to go over old ground or address the history, which has since been written by Vernon Hopkins and is about to grace our radios and TV sets in the form of a narrated piece of work with some top Welsh Actors as they chart the life of Vernon Hopkins, The Senators, The Squires and Tom Jones from those very modest beginnings to today.
We know the story of one of the members of that band who became one of the most popular and recognisable Welshmen in the World. Although Vernon gave us enough information for a book, on the imminent birthday of Sir Tom it would be inappropriate to lay it his story bare here, warts and all. We will leave that to Vernon’s Book, Just Help Yourself: Tom Jones, The Squires and the Road to Stardom Paperback – 28 Nov. 2018.
It is the classic story of the difficult path to fame trod by so many bands and artists in the 1960s. It tells the story of Rhydyfelin rock group The Senators (later the Squires), of founder Vernon Hopkins’ discovery of Tom Jones, and their launch towards international stardom. This is the bands story from their gigging days in south Wales when Tom and Vernon were as close as brothers, to their eventual and inevitable painful falling out in 1969 when Vernon was sacked by manager (and fellow south Walian) Gordon Mills: since then Hopkins has seen Tom on only a handful of occasions.
This is a no-holds-barred account of their time together, gigging in Working Mens Clubs in south Wales, living a less-than-glamorous life in Notting Hill, waiting for their breakthrough in London. When fame finally did arrive, with it came the uncoupling of the star singer from the band by an unscrupulous manager. Just Help Yourself gives new insight into Tom Jones himself, and into the world of pop music in the late Sixties and early Seventies in a grittily authentic narrative. Hopkins experienced both the pop star high life, touring America, Australia and Europe, and the low points of being a jobbing musician. The music business really was and is as cut throat as reported.
The BBC is running a series of programmes on the life of Tom jones in the run up to his birthday. Vernon is also performing in a show with some of the stars of the 60s, which will also be televised.