Mandrake Club and Cab Kaye...
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The Mandrake Club and Cab Kaye...
Wally Wrightman was a double bass player on the Soho club scene when there were literally scores of drinking and jazz clubs in that area. He spent ten years (on and off) at The Mandrake Club where he worked with the very popular and talented jazz singer and pianist Cab Kaye. Wally is in the process of writing his biography, provisionally titled "The slippery end of the rainbow". The title came about when he sang for Judy Garland at "L'Hirondelle", a nightclub just off Regent Street that she was visiting with the notorious Kray twins.
The page below is an edited version of his personal and entertaining chapter on The Mandrake and Cab Kaye, and other clubs...
Memories of a barmaid... and the doorman...
Cab Kaye biography and discography
"Laurie Morgan, an iconic drummer from the 40's and fifties bebop scene, first introduced me to that unique establishment The Mandrake Club. Its location was a basement, in fact a series of basements in Meard Street, a narrow street running between Wardour Street and Dean Street in the heart of London's Soho.
The Mandrake was not exactly a jazz club, but was frequented by many jazz musicians mainly because of its ambience and the restaurant. But more importantly the bar stayed open very late. Music was dispensed until the early hours of the morning by the legendary singer/pianist/entertainer Cab Kaye. It was one of many scores of clubs in Soho and its surrounding areas that were designated as social (and drinking) clubs. The founder and original owner was Boris, a Soho character of indeterminate origin (some say Russian) who started a chess club in the basement of one of the once stately terraces that lined the tiny street. He also managed to acquire the lease of the basement next door, to which he added a bar, and then with further burrowing, got the lease of the basement in the end terrace, which eventually became the music room.
The decor was fairly stark by today's standards, dark wood panelling, plain tables and chairs and no tablecloths. But if you were a Mandrake habitué then you ignored all the things it lacked, because it was a club like no other.

The music though was my idea of heaven. Cab Kaye was a masterful entertainer, and every night that I worked there with him was a lesson in the noble art of jazz. His repertoire was mainly culled from the Billie Holiday songbook, and if you shut your eyes and listened to the timbre of his voice, there was indeed a similarity to the legendary Lady Day. He also drew upon the repertoire of other rhythm and blues artists, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Slim & Slam, Joe Williams, Louis Prima, and Dinah Washington. Not that he was an imitator; he gave each song his own individual stamp, with a deep felt warmth and an impish sense of humour. He was also a gifted composer, and his soulful melodies remain in my mind to this day.

Because the Mandrake was a club where your anonymity was sacrosanct, it was a haven for those who needed an after hours meeting place in the West End of London. Ronnie Scott was a regular visitor, his girl friend Sue, worked behind the bar. In an underground way too, its fame spread far and wide, and I can vividly remember just about half the Duke Ellington Band coming in for a blow after a concert at the State Kilburn, with Harry Carney schlepping his baritone down the twisting Mandrake stairs. Russell Procope played some wonderful clarinet. and their were several others whose names I don't recall, all jamming away with Cab and myself. Afterwards I must have had black and blue legs from pinching myself to see if it was all true.
In retrospect Cab had a favourite saying "Truth is stranger than friction" and so it was, believe me. Ginger Baker the drummer from Cream was regular sitter in, as was bassist Jack Bruce. Freddie Redd and Jackie Mclean from the States who were appearing in the controversial drug related play "The Connection" were frequent visitors after their nights performance at the theatre.
At the end of one really inspiring session at the Mandrake, he (Cab) took me aside after the gig and said, "Meet me at Bush House in the Strand at 3 oçlock tomorrow we've got a broadcast on the BBC overseas service". He looked at my stunned face and said don't worry we have a two hour rehearsal and we're recording 4 songs for the BBC overseas transcription service. It will go out to Australia, New Zealand , South Africa, and about six African' nations. We get a separate fee for each country, so its worth £200 altogether. My face must have looked a picture, but he laughed and said don't worry, I've known about this for a couple of weeks but I didn't want to worry you. Sadly I didn't get to do any more broadcasts with Cab, shortly after this time (c1960) he left to join the Humphrey Lyttleton Band, and legendary madcap Soho pianist/comedian Cecil "Flash Winstone" became the house pianist".
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More on the Mandrake
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"I didn't meet up with Cab again for some 20 years, this time it was in Amsterdam. I was attending the North Sea Jazz Festival, I picked up a programme of what's on events in Amsterdam at my hotel, and there was an advertisement for the Cab Kaye piano jazz bar in an area just a short tram ride away. It was three oçlock in the afternoon, but my curiosity got the better of me, I knew the bar wouldn't be open but I wanted to see what it looked like. There it was in Boulangstraat, a narrow street just away from the picturesque canals. There was a piano keyboard painted on the bar front window, and the sign read Cab Kaye's piano bar. There was a side door to the bar with two separate door bells, one marked Slide Hampton the other Cab Kaye. This I assumed to be the apartments upstairs.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought, and pressed Cab's bell. The window upstairs was flung open and the familiar face that I knew so well appeared. He obviously didn't recognize me from the 2nd floor and shouted "Who's that?" In reply I shouted back " It's your old bass player" - "Which one?" was the reply. "Wally" I shouted back, whereupon the window was slammed shut. I started laughing, and he opened the window again and laughed too, and said "Hang on, I'm coming down". We embraced warmly, and I must say he looked much the same as when I had seen him last, more than 25 years ago. He took me upstairs to meet his Dutch wife, Jeanette. The afternoon was spent reminiscing, after all we had a lot of years to catch up with.
I went back to my hotel with my head buzzing, and my heart just about bursting with songs that I anticipated he would sing that evening. I arrived back at the piano bar just as Jeanette opened the doors. The routine she told me, was that the bar opened at 9pm and she made the snacks, and did all the bar work prior to Cab's arrival at from the apartment upstairs10 pm. The room itself was quite small. and probably only held 60-80 customers. It was a typical Amsterdam bar, with dark wood paneling, and all sorts of nick nacks on the wall, plus photos of Cab with various celebrities.
The years certainly rolled back for me as he sat down at the baby grand piano, and once again proceeded to captivate me, and the audience with a repertoire of music that had me desperately wishing I had a double bass to join in and be a part of the magic he was creating. All the old favourites came tumbling out, almost as if he had created the music himself, he certainly put his own personal stamp on everything he played. He even included some of his originals, and a composition that he dedicated to Jeanette, sung with the fervour of a man who know's that he's on the right track to immortality.
I had the dubious fortune of working many of Soho's watering holes, plus a few in Mayfair too. The South Molton Club in the street of the same name, was a different type of drinking club. Here they employed hostesses, who were nothing more than glorified hookers. Their sole job was to entertain the punters, and encourage them to lighten their wallets, by persuading them to buy drinks , usually bottles of champagne at exorbitant prices, and promising them all manner of delights of the flesh, once closing time was reached. A suitable rendevous was settled on, and if the punter was an out of towner then it was his hotel room. If not it was one of those seedy rent by the hour establishments that proliferated around Sussex Gardens or Paddington station.
There were many clubs whose names I do not remember, and they have vanished into the mists of time, but there was one club just off Charing Cross road that I can recall really well. I worked with a really wonderful trio, Geoff Oakes on piano, and Tommy Jones on drums. Every night was like a new musical experience, the club had a grand piano, reasonable sound, and the Greek boss let us play whatever we wanted to, within reason, Utopia of course never lasts forever, and one night a brawl broke out in the club with bottles and glasses flying everywhere. The sound of broken glass is one of the most frightening in the world, but Tommy managed to come up with the line of the week, if not the year, as we sheltered under the Steinway, when he said at the height of the brawl, Just as well they had a grand piano, we'd have been dead if they had an upright"

This page was last updated during January, 2020.
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