I loved the Nightingale at Witton Lane, 1977
I loved the Nightingale Club at Witton Lane, Aston. I was the DJ there from 1977 until the club moved to Thorp Street. It was a small, triangular building on three flours. The club occupied the first two floors and the club managers, (Mick Dunn and later Derek Whittam, lived on the top floor. There were two small bars; the one on the ground floor was favoured by the older guys who had been on the scene for many years and the one on the second serviced the younger guys who preferred the disco.
It was customary to have your first drink at the ground floor bar. The older guys used to hold court there. These guys’ roots were in the “talking” gay scene of the 1950s and 1960s and their conversations were often intelligent, witty, very funny and very camp. It was best to remain silent if you couldn’t keep up this high standard; they could be viciously sarcastic too. They were quite a dignified group on the whole and I remember them fondly.
The names I recall are Peter Scott-Fleeman, (tall eloquent and a little camp), Arthur Tuck, (who always smoked his cigarettes with a long Bette Davis style holder), Charles Sewell, (who could be “difficult” but was really a nice guy when you got to know him) and Charles’ partner Paul, (who was always on the other side of the bar working as the barman.) There were others whose names I can’t recall. The Nightingale still owes a huge debt to these guys. Charles and Paul allowed their home to be used as security on a loan needed for the move to Thorp Street, others took out very expensive “life-memberships” to help and others who were less well off (and younger) paid for five years in advance. Peter Scott-Fleeman was the Chairman of the Members’ Committee and interviewed prospective candidates for membership. (The Nightingale was, and probably still is, a private members club where guests had to be “signed in”). Arthur Tuck was Chairman of the General Committee which ran the finances of the club. A younger guy called John Jeffries aka Jinks was the treasurer. These guys had varied backgrounds, but class was never an issue anywhere on the gay scene in those days. Being gay was a great leveller; it didn’t matter how you spoke, (as long as you were witty or camp or both), it didn’t matter how you held your cutlery or whether you called a sofa a settee or a couch. If you were gay, you were a brother, period.
It seems to have been forgotten just how secret the gay scene still was in the 1970s. The Nightingale never advertised. The club was mentioned occasionally in Gay News, but that’s all. The older members, and many of the younger ones, were happy to keep it this way. I have to admit to finding the secrecy a big part of the fun. I wonder just how many Aston Villa supporters new that they were eating their burgers and hot dogs on the steps of one of the best gay clubs in the country.
The club building was so small that if more than 50 people turned-up, it was packed to capacity. Having said that, I remember occasions, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when 100 were squashed in. This meant that often everybody knew, by name at least, everybody else which produced a great sense of belonging. Derek (Whittam) would almost always great arriving members by their first name or nick-name.
The disco on the second floor was a small triangular room painted matt black. The lighting was synchronised to the music, (this was the mid 1970s remember) and the music which at first was just pop, (Typically Tropical “Wow! I’m going to Barbados”), evolved into Disco years before the straight clubs. Around 1977, 12-inch vinyl singles came along and as the club’s DJ; I used to buy the records for Graham War’s stall in Oasis on Corporation Street. He used to stock amazing imported recordings by artists at the time unknown in the UK. If a record proved popular I often had to buy another copy and I would mix from one to the other often stretching a track out to twenty minutes. Big favourites at the time were, Candi Statton’s “Young Hearts, Run Free”, Dan Hartman’s “Instant Replay”, a group called Brainstorm's, “Loving is part of the game, Sylvester’s “You make me feel mighty real”. We loved all those recordings by Gergio Moroder especially Donna Summers. I used to photograph the covers of the albums and project them onto the one white wall that was used for the occasional “Gilbert and Sullivan Evenings”, (gay porn movies). Late on Saturday night a black rent-boy called Freddie often brought along some unheard of 12-inch recordings of groups in vogue on the New York dance scene, which he used to bribe me to play.
The sound system was superb for its day, and I think the Club had John (Jinks) Jeffries to thank for it. It was a 500 watt stereo system, (in the days when Watts were Watts, not this root mean square nonsense you get today), and the main volume control was in a locked box that the DJ couldn’t open, (Derek Whittam had the key), just in case the DJ got over excited. The guys at the club became very sophisticated in their musical tastes, (until Village People came along that is).
I remember one night Freddie Mercury was in the club and someone asked me to play some Queen songs - we didn’t have any of course. A similar thing happened when Elton John paid a visit - sorry, no Elton John. While I’m on the subject of famous visitors here’s a couple more: the actor and comedian Jimmy Edwards was there one night. He signed the guest book “Jimmy Edwards” in large writing and paid his entrance fee (50p), and Tom Robinson, whom I met in the Viking. (He was playing in a band called Café Society and had just finished a gig at the Birmingham Town Hall). Tom was, and probably still is, a really nice, genuine guy. He loved the Nightingale.
The Nightingale out grew Witton Lane and sadly had to move. For me, it was never the same again. That cosy atmosphere of gay men from different backgrounds and generations, all on first name terms, was never recaptured. The lease for “Witton Lane” was sold to a West Indian guy who re-opened it as the (straight) Tabasco Club. Some years later in was set fire to under mysterious circumstances and nothing remains of the building today. A blue plaque should be displayed:
“On this site stood the best Gay Club in England 1974-1981”..
Contributed by: Graham 1, 55