I started work at International House London in the summer of 1969. For those of you not involved in English language teaching, IH was and remains a very influential private language school. At that time the school was located at 40 Shaftesbury Avenue, near Piccadilly Circus, right in the centre of London.
One afternoon, I walked into the staffroom and saw a distinctive guitar case under a table. It was black but covered in white paper flowers (this was still the 1960s, after all). Without a second thought, I opened the case, and took out the guitar. I gasped when I saw it was an old Gibson (actually very old, and very valuable).
My fingers were just forming an A minor shape on the fretboard when a stunning young woman walked into the room. She had long blonde hair and was wearing a brown sweater, a suede mini-skirt and shiny knee-length patent leather boots with platform heels. I smiled at her, dazzled.
She didn’t smile back.
“Who the hell said you could play my guitar?” she demanded, in what sounded suspiciously like an American accent.
“Can you play?”
“Yeah, a bit.”
“Can you sing?”
“Well, I was in the church choir when I was a child.” I smiled cheesily to indicate that this was meant to be funny. She didn’t smile back.
“We have a music club on Friday nights. If you come along and sing, I will forgive you.”
No prizes for guessing that this was Dede Brewer, now Dede Wilson.
At the music club, I met Dede’s best friend in London, a South African called Michael Klein. A few weeks later, I met his friend Alan Wakeman (anyone remember the 1960s English language course English Fast?), who was a songwriter as well as an ELT author. Alan wanted to find a band who would sing his songs and Dede, Michael and I became that band. A half Brazilian, half Scottish student of mine called Lucia Turnbull joined us.
So … an American, a South African, a Brazilian and a lad from Salford formed a band. And what did we call ourselves? Gulp, here goes. The Solid British Hat Band. What WERE we thinking of??
After a few months, Lucia had to go back to Brazil, and my brother’s wife’s sister Gillian Dickinson joined us. We rehearsed at the weekends and on Thursday evenings, so I used to bring my guitar to school on Thursday morning and leave it under the table in the staff room. One day, someone said there had been a theft the night before, so I took the guitar with me to class for safe-keeping.
I had an intermediate class at the time. They were really great students. I was 22 years old, and most of the students were the same age as me. There were whoops of delight when I walked into the classroom with the guitar. I wondered later if this was a reflection on the dullness of our normal classes.
The students demanded that I play the guitar. The more I hesitated, the more insistent they became. I wasn’t sure whether the school would think this was the best use of their time. Eventually, I promised to bring some song words the following day and we would learn a song together. Hell, we were together for ten hours a week – surely the school wouldn’t mind if I spent a bit of time singing?
Although I was always a bit worried that we were having too much ‘fun’, the class clamoured for more, and we sometimes spent the whole of our two-hour class on Friday mornings learning more and more songs. Beatles songs were particularly popular at the time.
When this class finally disbanded, I was heart-broken. My next class were beginners so I couldn’t use the Friday morning songs. However, by this time I was convinced that using songs with students was useful as well as enjoyable. With no material available that was easy enough for my beginners’ class to sing, I started to write my own songs for them.
One day, International House founder and boss John Haycraft stopped me in the corridor. “I understand that you’ve been writing songs for your class,” he said.
I hesitated a moment before admitting it. Was he going to censure me for wasting the students’ time? Not a bit of it!
“Let me see if I can get one of the publishers interested,” he said.
And he was as good as his word. I had an interview with a publisher a few weeks later. The result was that before my 23rd birthday, I signed a contract to write, record and produce a collection of English teaching songs.
The album Mister Monday appeared the following year. At the time, I was the youngest-ever published ELT author. I don’t know if I still hold this record. Mister Monday was an international success and the start of my career as an ELT author.
At the time, however, I wondered if I had made a dreadful mistake. With hardly any experience of recording, Dede, Gillian, Michael and I were going to go into a studio TO MAKE AN ALBUM!!!!
How did we get on? I’ll tell you next time!
PS Original band member Lucia Turnbull was quite successful when she went back to Brazil. Her Wikipedia page describes her as the first woman electric guitarist in Brazil.