THIS week we paddle our battered time-travelling canoe into the Thames Delta of the 1960s, to visit that strange part of Essex known as Canvey Island. Although it is mainly below sea level, Canvey has been inhabited since Roman times and was the fastest-growing English holiday resort in the first half of the 20th century until it was devastated by the North Sea flood of 1953, which claimed 58 lives and caused 13,000 islanders to be evacuated until a new sea wall could be built. A disconcerting mixture of shacks and chalets, seedy bars, seaside kitsch and petrochemical industrial wasteland, it has an atmosphere all of its own, thanks particularly to the river mist and the fumes from Coryton oil refinery.
A young chap from West London named Lee Collinson was a frequent visitor to his grandparents in Canvey, where he made friends with a lad called Chris White. The two boys and their gang would explore the island and mess about in a little dinghy supplied to Lee by the old folks. ‘Canvey was a rural community in lots of ways,’ he said. ‘We knew about tides, about birds and shellfish, alongside the bookies and the boozers.’
Eventually Lee was spending so much time there (on Fridays he would board the District Line Tube at Ealing Broadway leaving a note on the kitchen table saying ‘Dear Mum, gone to Nan’s, see you Sunday’) that his parents Joan and Arthur had a house built near Chris’s and they moved to the island in 1965, when their son was 13. ‘We lived right on the sea wall facing Hadleigh Castle,’ Joan tells author Zoe Howe in her charming book Lee Brilleaux, Rock ’N’ Roll Gentleman. ‘Lee and his friends would go out in the boat and every hour I’d go upstairs with my binoculars to make sure they were all right. He and Chris would pick up people two at a time, charge them sixpence each and take them out to [the nature reserve] Two Tree Island.’
One day Lee tried to row against the cross-currents to North Kent and had to be rescued by lifeboat. ‘They’d put him in a boiler suit,’ his mum recalled. ‘He was in big trouble when he got back.’ (What an incredible contrast, by the way, between Lee’s boyhood escapades and the children of today, spending their entire lives encased in cotton wool.)
In September 1965 Lee became a pupil at Rayleigh Sweyne Grammar School on the Essex mainland, where he became friends with classmate Phil Ashcroft. ‘Canvey Island was like another world over the water,’ Phil told Zoe Howe. He recalled seeing Lee ‘getting on a bus that looked more like a cattle truck to take him and the other Canvey kids back through the mists and marshes to that strange place, in the shadow of Coryton’s blazing tower, fascinating and frightening in equal measure.’
Phil, who lived in Hadleigh, said there ‘would always be weird stuff happening over there. There were still strange old people living with chickens on bits of scrubland and people with odd religious beliefs. It was a Deep South feeling.’
Lee’s mother added: ‘Canvey Island was uniquely scruffy. There was no planning permission – you could put up anything you liked. The roads didn’t go anywhere. Even now on Canvey you can go down a road and it comes to a dead end for no reason.’
One Saturday night the Collinson family were watching TV when the Rolling Stones came on playing Little Red Rooster. Joan and Arthur were horrified by the Stones’ long hair and scowling demeanour. Lee was captivated. ‘I always liked pop music,’ he said, ‘but it wasn’t until I heard blues via people like the Stones that I really started to become obsessive about it.’
Another music-mad teenager on the island was John Wilkinson, who was almost five years older than Lee. He adored Canvey, referring to it as Babylon because of the oil refinery towers in the shimmering haze. His father was a gas fitter and the family had a telephone, then a rarity on the island. It saved their lives as someone rang to warn of the 1953 North Sea flood and they were able to escape to the mainland. John and his younger brother Malcolm were evacuated to Sheffield for several months. Their dad had to stay and work on the flooded gas pipes, wrecking his health and contributing to his death at a young age. He and John were never close.
Having passed his 11-plus, John attended grammar school in Southend, where teachers would mock his accent and make him say ‘bottle’ and ‘little’ in front of his sniggering classmates. One Christmas his mum bought him a cheap guitar at about the same time his friend John Martin got a drum kit. It was a right-handed guitar and John was a lefty but he persevered, working on a style which combined lead and rhythm guitar in the same way as his hero Mick Green, of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
He and Malcolm had a skiffle group playing Leadbelly songs on the streets of Canvey. At pub closing time they would switch to sentimental songs such as You Are My Sunshine and make generous tips from the drunken punters. One day they were playing on the sea front when they were approached by Lee Collinson, Chris White and their friend John Sparkes. ‘Lee, even then, seemed so self-possessed and obviously clever,’ said John Wilkinson. ‘I remember walking home with my brother and we were like, “That kid’s a bit sharp, isn’t he?” He radiated.’
John went off to read English at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, marrying his girlfriend Irene so she could stay with him there. It was Irene who emptied her Post Office account so he could buy a decent guitar, a Fender Telecaster. Returning home for the summer, John saw a jug band playing in the High Street on a Canvey Carnival float. The mean, moody singer and banjo player was Lee. ‘I thought, wow, there’s that guy,’ said John.
Back at Rayleigh Sweyne Lee, Phil and their friend John ‘Crusher’ Wardropper formed a dandyish society named the Utterly Club. They would turn up in waistcoats with watch chains, wore the school tie cravat-style and sported home-made monocles made from cannibalised National Health spectacles. Lee made great play of popping out his monocle if a teacher spoke to him.
One day after school, Lee and Chris travelled to Romford where Howlin’ Wolf was playing at the King’s Head. The American bluesman was a revelation, moaning, screaming and rolling on the stage. ‘That really did seal it for me,’ Lee would later tell former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones on Radio 2. ‘That enormous guy with a harmonica just controlling this sweaty room at the back of a pub – that was the most exciting thing.’
The next day, Lee bought himself a harmonica and taught himself to play it. He and John Sparkes made overtures to a local blues band named The Fix, led by guitarist Dave Higgs. He said Lee could be the new singer while Sparkes, who played 12-string guitar, would be the bass player. Sparkes protested that he didn’t know how to play the bass but Higgs said: ‘Oh, I’ll show ya.’
Leaving school after A-levels, Lee accepted that being a blues star was not a feasible career option and on the advice of his mum, a legal secretary, he became a solicitor’s clerk after realising that he would get to visit villains in the nick, serve writs, wear a suit to work and drive the company Ford Consul.
In 1971, a newly graduated and very long-haired John Wilkinson returned from a hike through India, Afghanistan and Nepal and landed a job as an English teacher at King John’s School in Benfleet, just across the bridge from Canvey. Walking around the island, he came across Lee looking sharp in pinstripes. Lee told him that he and Sparkes still played together, now concentrating on R & B, but they needed a guitarist. Wilkinson failed to take the hint and Lee was too shy to ask him outright but that night Sparkes arrived at his house and said: ‘Look, do you wanna join our band?’ The answer: ‘YES!’ Wilkinson suggested John Martin as drummer and the group was named Dr Feelgood after a song by the bluesman Piano Red covered by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Their manager was Chris White, who changed his name to Fenwick for some reason and managed to fix up a succession of gigs in Essex and beyond.
With exams coming up, Lee became torn between the law and the band. He told his parents that he felt guilty about going into music full time because they had supported him financially during his legal studies. ‘I’ve got to make a decision, go on with the law or Dr Feelgood – it looks like it’s taking off,’ he said. Joan asked him: ‘Which makes you the happiest?’ ‘Dr Feelgood.’ ‘Well, there’s your decision made.’
At this point I’ll refer you to a superb documentary about the band, Julien Temple’s Oil City Confidential. I think the magnificent Joan Collinson steals the show.
Next week we will see Lee become Brilleaux, John Wilkinson become Wilko Johnson, and the Feelgoods take the music world by storm.
PS: Thanks to Andy Marshall for knowledge and suggestions.