After leaving the US Airforce in March 1965 Geno Washington became a UK Soul legend with his Ram Jam Band. In 1966 their album Hand Clappin, Foot Stompin, Funky-Butt ... Live! Was in the charts for 38 weeks and was only outsold by The Sound Of Music and Bridge Over Troubled Water.
In 1980 Dexy’s Midnight Runners homage to him became a world wide hit. However, little is known about the bootlegger’s son who was brought up by his granny [also a bootlegger] when both his parents were in jail or how he became one of the biggest Soul legends of an era. The facts are that Geno Washington had never sung a note until being stationed in East Anglia back in December 1961. So here’s the story of how he started. One thing I do need to point out though and that is anyone who’s ever met or talked to Geno will realise that he has a big, infectious laugh that comes in many sizes but all begin at extra large.
Kingsley: Hi Geno, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We are doing some research into the Influence of African American music within East Anglia, especially the era of the Friendly Invasion.
Geno: HEY, HEY this is not a black thing is it! [XX Large laugh]– I’m just messin’ with you Kingsley. I’m gonna give you everything you need. I’ll follow you.
Kingsley: Cheers, I’ll start at the beginning and work through. I noticed watching some of your latest interviews on You-tube that you still have a great sense of humour about everything and talk openly and very fondly about your career, even the years were things weren’t going that well for you.
Geno: Kingsley, my philosophy is everyday above ground is a good day. [XX Large laugh]
Kingsley: Right on.
Geno: You got it man.
Kingsley: Let’s start with the rumour that you were already in the Air force and stayed in to avoid the Vietnam draft and to get the posting to England, is that true?
Geno: No, No, man, they got that wrong. What is true though is I joined the Air force in 1961 to avoid the Vietnam draft, me and a few thousand others [XXL laugh]. I did get posted to England which is seen as a luxury assignment, but I didn’t have anything to do with that. My friends all say that damn Geno he got posted to England, that lucky Bastard. [XXXL laugh] Yeah I got lucky with the draw and came over with 17 other airmen in December 1961. I was posted at Bentwaters about 15 miles from Ipswich and at Woodbridge which is about the same. I was a PT (Physical Training) instructor for both bases.
Kingsley: Did you ever sing with bands before coming over to England?
Geno: No man, I never sung a note. [XXL laugh] I was an athlete you see, a top class athlete, for three years I was European champion in the high hurdles in all the European armed forces.
Kingsley: Are there any regrets about choosing the music route instead of the athletics?
Geno: No man, I had to make a decision early on, joining the Air force for 4 years meant I missed out on a scholarship which would meant getting to play pro-ball and all that. By the time I got out I would have been behind everybody, I would have been seen as an old man. They’d have been saying ‘old pops’ is here. [XXXL laugh]
Kingsley: Do you remember the first band you sang with in East Anglia and what kind of numbers you sang?
Geno: It was pop. This guy called Irvin, I can’t remember his last name; he came into the Bamboo café, a GI café in Ipswich and started asking everyone if they could sing. Basically he just wanted a black guy to front his band. Everyone told him ‘get out of here man, you crazy’. He got to me about fourth and said “do you sing?” I said, Sing! I sing, I dance, my mum is Dinah Washington and my sister is in Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, of course I was lying my ass off but it sounded fun, you know what I mean. I went along and it was shit, but it didn’t matter because I was shit too. [XXXL laugh] It was a terrible group man. I’d never sung before in my life but I just wanted to hang out and see what was going on, you know what I’m sayin’.
I then met another guy down there [Ipswich], he was called Neville, Neville Moles and we became good friends and that. He got me to sing in his band and we were called Geno Washington and The Flames. That’s where I started getting my confidence singing and stuff, we’re still good friends today; he lives in Yarmouth now. He had the connections and could get the work, you know church halls and shit, working mans clubs, stuff like that. I also used to sing with a group from Bury St Edmunds called The Raiders, they was good, know what I mean.
Kingsley: There are pictures in circulation of an Ipswich band you were with called Les Blues. What’s the story there?
Geno: Yeah Man, that was later. I met up with Kol the keyboard player, he was f brilliant, like a genius, an unbelievable pianist, ya know. They were playing Jazz and I heard about them through their trombone player who was stationed at Bentwaters. I went down and sang some Jazz. Then this big local band split up called the Unit 4 and we was all gonna form a super group, that was Les Blues. It was a French thing, they were big on Black American Jazz. Well this guy heard us and said I gotta have you guys every week and we played the Railway Hotel in Clacton every weekend for 6 months, it was a nice room and had a great bar, we’d pack it out every time we showed up, you know.
That group folded because of the girlfriends, they all got jealous and didn’t want their guys away all the time at gigs. It was all fun and good training for me, my thing was being into training because I was not a singer but what I could do was talk shit and I was a great dancer. [XXXL Laugh]I’d talk shit, then I’d dance, talk some more shit, do the splits and all that James Brown bullshit, you know what I mean.
Kingsley: Is the rumour true that the band Les Blues was started as Suffolk’s answer to Milton and the Continentals, a group that was doing really well in Norfolk?
Geno: No man, the group was the idea of Kol and Gerry [of Unit 4]; they got together over a cup of tea or something and talked it over. It had nothing to do with Milton and the Continentals, nothing what so ever, they didn’t matter [XXL Laugh] no doubt about it.
Kingsley: Did you ever make any recordings with any of these early groups?
Geno: No, it never got that far with any of them. We were getting our name around then the girlfriends stepped in so we never got the chance to even talk about things like that, you know.
Kingsley: What were your favourite local venues to play?
Geno: Yeah man there was this place called The Coach and Horses, [XXXL laugh] yeah… it used to be a big Irish hang-out you see but I didn’t know that you see. I’m new, it’s 1961, I’m in England and I never met no real Irish people. I’d say come down and see me at the Coach and Horses man and they’d say, “no way man that place is full of Irish people”. I didn’t know but when they get to drinkin’, they startin’ fights and shit, they like the black people; they putting the knife in and start a kickin’ ass. It didn’t bother me though I was used to that shit you know what I mean. [XXXL laugh]
Kingsley: I read in an article that early on it was Shane Fenton (Alvin Stardust) who inspired you to want to sing professionally. When you were at one of their gigs and all the girls were throwing their knickers at him on stage. He was a pop singer and you never went in for that sound, where did the soul thing come from?
Geno: That’s right, the thing with Shane Fenton to me was he had all the looks, everybody in the band had the pretty boy looks but his singing to me was totally uninteresting. He couldn’t dance and he couldn’t talk shit but when those knickers started hittin’ the stage a voice spoke to me and said ‘I think this is a job for you Geno.’ [XXXL laugh] I wanted to get me some of that action going, so that’s how that was.
I went to the changing room, I had to ask him if there was any money involved, I knew there was the girls, parties and good times but I had to find out, was there any money involved for, you know , those little extras. [XXL laugh] He thought I was a f nut, he couldn’t believe I’d be that dumb, right [XXL laugh] but after about 30 seconds he realised I didn’t really know man and I was just asking from the heart. He said “Damn right I get paid and travel all over England.” ‘Well how can I get me some of this shit?’ I said, ‘I need some of that action, how can I get it?’ And he told me about this Flamingo Club in London and The Marquee.
He told me about The Flamingo because they played Black music down there, Blues and Jazz you see. He said a lot of guys jump up and sing so I thought I’d go and see, ask - you know what I mean.
So there I was two weeks later down at the Flamingo Club, the joint is jumpin’ and there was so much competition with guys and stuff I thought f* the competition and just jumped up and started to sing. [XL laugh] Later I asked Georgie Fame if I could sing a song with him, he normally let the GI’s jump up and give it a blow. He said “Do you sing?” I said ‘Sing! My mum is Dinah Washington and my sister is in Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.’ [XXXL laugh] So there I was lying my ass off again but it was that lying that got me singing with the groups. I sang with Eric Clapton, Graham Bond, The Animals, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry. I think I was what was called a misguided black man.
As far as the Soul thing goes, I was really a Blues singer that made it as a Soul singer, I sang Blues when I was in Ipswich. Back home my family ran a bootlegging joint, so 24/7 the music is always the god damn Blues, you know what I’m sayin’; anyone who was jamin’ were Blues cats.
The Soul thing comes like this, they called it soul to make it different for the public so they know they weren’t just playing the Blues. It had a twist but like Otis Reading said “it’s all the Blues.” But they just added some more interesting changes, it was evolving. So when it came to me auditioning for Pete Gage [Ram Jam Band] it was just like what the cats were playing but with horns. So to me it didn’t feel no different. I’d seen bands like that back home long before they called it Soul. To me it didn’t matter what you called it, if you weren’t any good they’d just say don’t hire those B* anymore. [XXL laugh]
Kingsley: So basically it wasn’t a conscious decision for you, you just went with the flow and carried on doing your thing.
Geno: Kingsley, you hit the god damn nail on the head. You can call it what you like but I’m gonna still do my thing. You gotta remember, I’m still learning at this point, competition was very stiff. I’m still working on my technique and learning how to be a professional rather than just walking around and talking shit. [XXXL laugh]
Kingsley: Moving on Geno, unlike America the UK didn’t have segregation but that’s not to say we were any more racially tolerant. How did you find the people of rural Suffolk and Norfolk?
Geno: I liked them very much man, I got along great with them. It was a new experience for me but I liked the English attitude of calling a spade a spade. They spoke very straight to you, they didn’t take no shit, it was plain and simple and I liked that. I developed a lot of friends, very good friends, and really nice people. That’s why I decided to come back here it was a no loser for me. I knew if I had stayed in America, I will lose. Probably end up getting some f* he’s now packing bags. [XXXL laugh] I didn’t want to end up like that. I wanted to be cool, have my cake and eat it. I had to find myself a job where I could have my cake and eat it.
I went back for two weeks when I left in March 1965 to get demobbed and apply for a passport. My family were disappointed I wanted to go back to England. “You just left England, why you wanna go back?” they said. When I told them I wanted to be a singer they just fell about laughing [XXXL laugh]; they laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes. “Sing! You can’t sing Mother you better stay here or you’re gonna starve.”
Kingsley: So you didn’t fancy getting into the family business of running Moonshine?
Geno: What, going to god damn jail at 25, getting in the newspaper, being an embarrassment to the family ‘grew up to be a god damn bootlegger, no good just like his daddy.’ No I figured I’d come back to England and give it a shot, you know what I mean, see what I can do.
Kingsley: You’ve been great Geno giving me loads your time have you got time for a couple more questions?
Geno: You’re fine man.
Kingsley: When I was at school in 1980 there was this song Geno by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I painted GENO in big letters on the back of my parka and thought who is this guy? I started collecting your back catalogue and getting into soul music. How did this worldwide hit, homage to you, affect you?
Geno: Well, when they had that hit I was living in Los Angeles. I was out there trying to develop my spirituality. I was getting my head together and got into hypnotism and became a hypnotherapist myself you see. So when the newspapers called me from England to ask how I felt about this band called Dexy’s Midnight Runners and their song called Geno and that it looked like it was going to be number 1, I said ‘I ought to sue those bastards for making me look too damn good.’ [XXXL laugh] I laughed so hard man. Really though it took about two or three years to sink in what an honour it is. I was really happy about it.
I was with him [Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s] about three days ago presenting an award to them, the icon award. They got me to present it
Kingsley: Shouldn’t that award have been going the other way?
Geno: It’s ’cause I’m black. [XXXXXL laugh]
Kingsley: [XXXXL laugh]
Geno: You’re as crazy as I am man.
Kingsley: Was the song the start of a great friendship?
Geno: Well we don’t see each other much, up until the other day it was about seven years since I’ve seen him. It was one of those Red carpet jobs at the Grosvenor Hotel for Q magazine. We have hung out though, great guys.
Kingsley: Going backward at bit, you touched on the hypnotherapy and I had read that you had become a hypnotist, how did this come about?
Geno: Yeah man, basically I had lost all my confidence, my head just wasn’t right. I was recommended to go and see one of the world’s greatest hypnotists her name was Pat Collins, wonderful lady she’s a singer, entertainer, hypnotherapist, a heeler, you know. I became a protégée; she taught me the ins and outs and everything and so, I got my confidence back and I’m ready to go out there and start singing again, partying and getting my groove-on. I came back to England and did something new, Hypnoshows, doing the universitys like Paul McKenna. My show was different though because the first half was hypnotism and then they would all go to the bar and then when they came back for the second half I came out with my Ram Jam band, it was fantastic. I got a mind, body, soul experience it was working really great.
Kingsley: Is that what we can expect in Norwich next week?
Geno: No, I got my new Blues band, R&B, we’re called Geno Washington and Yo Yo. It’s been working a storm. People have been going crazy over this shit. It’s different. I feel like a fat rat in a cheese factory. [XXXL laugh] Shakespeare… [XXXL laugh]
Kingsley: Geno, it’s been a fantastic interview. I’ve chatted with many people over the years from East Anglia especially those who saw you in your heyday when you used to play this region all the time. They all agree that your live show is one of the best in the world.
Geno: That’s great man. I’ve always tried to gear the show to audience fun and involvement. I’ve had so many good shows down in East Anglia; I got a lot of friends there too. That part of the world has a special place in my heart.
You make sure you come and see me next week and bring your camera. We can get a picture together, just don’t forget to tell you’re friends the black guy didn’t mug you. And I’ll tell mine the white guy weren’t hassling me. [XXXL laugh]
Thanks for thinking of me.
2012 Kingsley Harris interviews Geno Washington 26/10/12