Wellies, umbrellas and raincoats were definitely in order for today’s Love London tour! Despite the rainy weather, we ventured into SoHo to learn, explore and be inspired by those whom history has forgotten or brushed aside – the women of music in London over the last few centuries.
Cecil Court is a lovely pedestrian street about halfway between Leicester Square tube station and Trafalgar Square. Hidden amongst the antique book shops and map stores sits a blue plaque commemorating the residence of W.A. Mozart and family. Surely the name rings a bell, but true to the nature of this tour, we did not focus on the famous younger brother. Instead, we learned that Mozart’s sister, Anna Maria, was the first musical prodigy in the family, but due to the customs of the era, her musical talent was surpressed in favor of her younger brother. Rumor even has it that she may have been responsible for Mozart’s first symphony.
Just around the corner we came to the Noel Coward theatre which housed the very first production of Oliver! One of the most famous songs from the show – As Long As He Needs Me – was beautifully performed in the 1960s by Georgia Brown. The song, at its core, is about staying with a problematic partner in a relationship that might not be a healthy one. It is in stark contrast to today’s feminist sensibilities, but important to remember it in the context of the 19th century. At that time, a woman would rather be in a bad relationship than be on her own as a single woman who society presumed to be a prostitute.
Moving into Leicester Square, we admired the Grade 2* facade of the Empire theatre. In recent years it’s housed a cinema and casino, but back in the 1880s it was the performing home to Marie Lloyd, London’s most powerful music hall entertainer. She commanded a salary of £100 per week, unheard of by the day’s salary standards and for a woman, in particular. Despite being a bit tawdry for the times, Marie Lloyd was immensely popular. Even with this popularity, she, too, was not immune to the idea that a woman of such a profession must be of ill repute and had to continually justify to the police that this was a reputable entertainment venue.
Just around the corner we learned about the factions of fighting fans for a pair of 18th century opera singers, Cuzzoni and Bordoni, who were George Frideric Handel’s leading ladies on stage. But as can only happen in London, we also happened to be standing next to the site of where Patti Boyd met George Harrison and John Lennon met his first wife, Cynthia, in a drug filled evening back in the 1960s. Just to make it more interesting, right next door was a French Roman Catholic Church where both the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees performed in the heart of London’s punk scene. #onlyinLondon
A short stroll away is the famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz venue. Ronnie brought in the biggest names of American jazz to entertain British audiences. The bar is thought to be a favorite of Ella Fitzgerald, who prefered the intimacy of the Ronnie Scott’s over the bigger arenas she could easily fill. She did not, however, like the all male facilities at the club, so you can find the Ella Fitzegerald commemorative loo in the back. So named after she made a generous donation to Ronnie to fix the problem.
2i’s Coffee Bar is no longer in existence, but thanks to the green musical plaque in front of a fish and chip shop, we were able to stop and learn a bit about skiffle music. Inspired by early American rock’n’roll (which has its roots in jazz and blues), and originating in America in the early 20th century, it became extremely popular in the UK in the 1950s. As true to our theme of hidden musical female heros, we learned about Nancy Whiskey who was a prominent skiffle musician, but rarely heard about today. I guess that is what happens when the Beatles take inspiration from your musical genre and kind of take over the world.
The stories of the forgotten, or perhaps distorted is a better way to phrase it, women of music continued on for our next few stops. Peggy Seegar is a successful muse, activitst musician and songwriter in her own right, but very often gets tagged as being Pete Seegar’s sister. Marianne Faithfull has had a successful career spanning over 50 years, but always gets mentioned as being Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, despite not having had that role for decades. While her own celebrity shone bright as a photographer, animal rights activisist and breast cancer awareness crusader, Linda McCartney is still first thought of by many as Paul’s wife. The bar pictured to the right is where Linda and Paul first met. She wasn’t there as a groupie, but rather as a photographer working on the night they met. It was refreshing to hear the stories of these women for their own roles and credentials and not just as a subtext to the men they were famous for being related to or romantically involved with.
Our last stop was at the London Palladium and we appropriately closed the curtain with a story about Judy Garland (very timely given the movie coming out about her life this week). In 1964, Judy performed at the Palladium for the TV broadcast of the Night of a 100 Stars. Just days earlier she had attempted suicide for the second time and despite being in a fragile state, she brought the crowd to their feet with a rendition of one of her most famous songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. This archived article from the New York Times describes the evening as it was 55 years ago. A very fitting end to our tour.
Many thanks to Adam Scott from London Music Tours who entertained us and shared many delightful stories throughout the tour. You can find him on Facebook or his website https://www.londonmusictours.co.uk/.