Kenny Johnson and the Lotus Club

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


We've featured a brief history of  Upper Cut club, on Woodgrange Road, on this site a number of times in recent months - including our recent chat with the club's big name "owner", Billy Walker (see here).

This week we feature a less famous local impresario, but one who, without doubt, had a much greater and longer lasting influence on the music scene in Forest Gate, East London and further afield - Kenny Johnson. We caught up with Kenny recently and chatted about his Forest Gate days and in particular his greatest local legacy, the Lotus Club.


Lotus club, above Courts on right of photo,
with Xmas decs -  1983
The Club was located  above what is now the 99p stores, and existed , in one form or another, under his control as a music venue for almost 40 years. The building was completed in 1938, as a classic Burton's men's outfitters, and, as was almost standard practice, the shop had a snooker hall on the upstairs floors.

During the Second World War the premises were used as a base and bar for the Home Guard and the place where children's rations were dispensed by the Ministry of Food.

Kenny Johnson keeping an eye on the Lotus cloakroom
The Lotus Ballroom was opened on the first floor of the building in about 1952, by ballroom dance impresarios Byron and Mons Woodmansee, as the dance craze swept the country. By the end of the 50's Burton's had pulled out and the rest of the block was occupied by Courts, the furniture company.  The ballroom, however, remained unaffected.
Undated ticket for a Lotus disco, for 12.5p!
Enter, Kenny Johnson. Kenny was brought up in Old Ford, and moved to Forest Gate's Earlham Grove in the late 1950's.  He soon started to work at the Ilford Palais as a bouncer, where he met future Upper Cut club owner, Billy Walker. Like Billy, he was an amateur boxer and had been a market porter, but at Spitalfields.

When the Palais closed for a year for refurbishment, around 1960, Kenny spotted a gap in the market and opened the Jive Dive, in a house in Earlham Grove (number 193), next to the Royal Mail sorting office, in 1960, in what had previously been the Earlham Grove Dance Academy.

Kenny outside the Jive Dive,
successful enough to allow a jag
The Jive Dive originally opened as a coffee bar, but soon obtained an alcohol license.  The ground floor was converted into a bar, and the basement a dance hall. It was imaginatively decorated, for the time - with bamboo partitions, film and gig posters on the walls and with plants, real and artificial, adorning key areas.
Kenny (with beard) on the door of the
Jive Dive, with friends and relatives
Eddie Johnson, in his book Tales from the Two Puddings, says this of the place:

The Jive Dive seemed to fulfil a real need in young people; it was the time of the 'mod', and young East Enders were, in those days, the most fashion conscious in the world; rendezvousing in Forest Gate every weekend and going to our club, they would have a few drinks and then dance their socks off in the basement. There was no trouble and the customers were a lovely crowd.
The venue proved a great success, but the resultant crowds were understandably less popular with the residential neighbours, and so the brothers closed it as a venue and looked elsewhere for music promotional opportunities.

Ever a man with an eye for a show business opportunity, Kenny spread his impresario wings wider, and put on regular and very successful gigs in the upstairs of Stratford's Two Puddings pub - later run by his brother Eddie - as the Big Beat Club.

He promoted events at other local venues, such as West Ham Town Hall, The old Eagle and Child pub on Woodgrange Road and the Spread Eagle, in Tottenham, West Ham Baths (where Jerry Lee Lewis was to play for him - see photos), Shoreditch Town Hall, Dagenham, Harlow and Croydon. And then very much further afield in the UK, in Liverpool and elsewhere, where his dad and uncle would help with the management of the events.

Jerry Lee Lewis gig, promoted by
Kenny Johnson, 1964

Jerry Lee Lewis, playing I'm on Fire,
recorded the night before his West Ham
Baths gig. The video can be found on
YouTube here:

Jerry Lee, with some of Kenny's friends
and family prior to the Romford Road gig
Kenny felt there was a gap in the market for a permanent pop music venue in the Forest Gate/West Ham area. As he was having difficulties at the Jive Dive he saw that the Lotus Ballroom's success was waning, as fashions moved on, and seized an opportunity with both hands.

He bought the lease of the ballroom, and reopened it, as the Lotus Club, in 1962. He brought to it one of Britain's earliest discotheques (the original having been pioneered at the Two Puddings), and began to attract some decent bands, to provide live gigs. It soon became the most popular haunt in North East London and Essex.

A night at the Lotus, with Tommy Bruce on mike
The line-ups were amazing, and over time, certainly rivalled those of the Upper Cut, for their significance. They included the Small Faces, as Kenny was friends with Ronnie "Plonk" Lane, founder member and bassist, and the band used to rehearse at the Two Puddings, when his brother, Eddie, ran it.


'You Really Got Me' - Kinks gig for £70
- the price of the band, not the ticket!
Kinks, dedicated followers of fashion

Small Faces: rehearsed in Two Puddings,
starred at the Lotus
Kenny remembers hosting Long John Baldry and His Hoochie Coochie Men, when the future Elton John, who then played the organ, and Rod Stewart were in the line up. In a considerable coup for the Club, Kenny booked a Kinks gig for £70 the week they topped the charts with You've Really Got Me - September 1964.
 
Lotus, Stratford Express advert 3 November 1967
Kenny was well connected in music circles, which accounted for the array of talent he was able to book, and the club's success rapidly grew.  He soon felt he needed a venue that could accommodate more than the 600 or so that the Lotus regularly attracted, and spotted an opportunity when the former roller rink, on the other side of Woodgrange Road became available.  It was in the hands of liquidators, NSA investments and he prepared to re-locate.

But, just as he was about to do so, the Walker Brothers nipped in, cut a deal with the liquidators' owner, Norman Aaronshon, and the Upper Cut opened, as local competition for the Lotus. Kenny stayed put.

He says he bore the brothers no malice, and his friendship with Billy, which had gone back to the time when they sparred with each other at West Ham Boxing club, in Plaistow's Black Lion pub, remained unaffected.

Other big names continued to appear at his club, including local boys David Essex and  Joe Brown, big name British groups, like The Hollies. Pretty Things Manfred Mann, the  Animals and Searchers, along with transatlantic stars like The Temptations, Little Eva and John Lee Hooker.

Kenny's most fondly remembered gigs featured Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Mary Wells (which attracted his biggest ever turnout).

Lotus advert for the Club's biggest
 gig, Stratford Express 17 April 1967;

600 adoring fans flock to Kenny's
favourite gig, to hear Mary Wells' My Guy
His connections in show business extended to television and he supplied bands to appear on Ready Steady Go, and was able to attract a TV crew to his staging of Screaming Lord Sutch, at the Lotus, when he was standing for Parliament.  A clip from the gig survives on YouTube (see below) and on the walls of the venue you can see adverts for the forthcoming Kinks gig.


Screaming Lord Sutch ; Jack the Ripper
- at the Lotus Club. Video can be found on YouTube here:
The Lotus was opened 6 nights a week and could count on big crowds, including the Swinging Sixties style "celebrities" and "personalities" like West Ham footballers Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, as well as local boxing heroes.
The Club, however,  was hit by changing licensing regulations from the late sixties, which affected admission criteria and imposed stricter health, safety and fire escape regulations (no more 600 crowds!).  These restriction gradually adversely impacted on the type of band the Club was able to attract, and thus, on its popularity.


Stratford Express
22 December 1967
So, Kenny Johnson extended his reach and featured gambling, bingo and a regular restaurant on the premises, to compensate.  These, too, suffered as a result of changing local authority regulations, which further inhibited business for the venue.

Kenny in the 70's, when
Lotus club in full steam
The Lotus Club continued, with dwindling crowds, until the mid 1990's when Kenny reached out to a new community and offered Sabura - a West African/Portuguese music tradition, which attracted considerable Angolan audiences, and regular live radio broadcasts to Lisbon and Luanda (capital of Angola!).

The Lotus Club, in its 70's manifestation as a casino
Courts the furnishers sold the building to the Peabody Trust, who wanted to redevelop it for social housing, in 2001 (their attempt failed), and the Lotus Club was evicted  - bringing down the curtain of 40 years of live music at the venue - a remarkable feat for a small, apparently sleepy suburb of East London.

Kenny now lives by the Essex coast, is a regular visitor to Forest Gate and maintains his fitness by weekly tennis sessions, a passion he embraced half a century ago.  Recently, together with brother Eddie, he has promoted a couple of Sixties revival nights at Stratford Town Hall, putting on bands of the time, to the great delights of attendees of the time!   We will happily promote any future events they promote!

Kenny today: "Anyone for tennis?"
Footnotes We would like to thank Kenny for his time and memories during the interview we had with him, his brother Eddie, whose book Tales from the Two Puddings will stir many a memory for older regulars of his former Stratford pub, but most of all to local historian Carol Price. She is Kenny's cousin, biggest promoter, interview fixer and, most of all, supplier of many of the fascinating photos featured in this blog.  All errors are, of course, ours.

We would be delighted to hear memories from any attendees at Lotus club events, or indeed anyone of the "scared" audience, featured in the clip from the Screaming Lord Sutch gig!


13 comments:

  1. A great piece of sleuthing and some colourful memories of Forest Gate. Top stuff!

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  2. Nice piece of writing, well done. It might interest people to know that Norman Aronsohn, the owner of the former skating rink that found renewed fame as the 'Upper Cut' first approached me about what to do with the premises, I passed him on to my brother Kenny who was enthusiastic about opening a Rock venue, he produced detailed plans for Aronsohn and it was a cause of much angst when a deal with the Walker brothers was signed and they seemed to follow Kenny's plan, probably given to them by Norman Aronsohn.

    Aronsohn was a shadowy figure in the world of high finance and it was often said he was the 'Mr X' behind many of George Walker's schemes.

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  3. my mum and nan worked for Byron when it was ballroom dancing and I don't know if Kenny remembers Jessie and ted pyman they also worked for him and were my aunt and uncle

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    1. I remember them well , if I am right your aunt used to work in the tea bar
      it was a seperate room with long couches and a tele , I used to go in there for a glass of milk . Before they had a bar .

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    2. I have just spoken to Kenny and he remembers your aunt and uncle very well
      he said that from the time he took over the Lotus they were always very helpful and hardworking he said that they were lovely people .
      Carol

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  4. I worked for Kenny in the Lotus from 1986 till 2000 many happy memories ��

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  5. It would be nice if I could tell him your name and mention you had posted on here
    Kenny doesnt use the computer very much .

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  6. I was a regular at the Lotus circa 1962/4 also the "Puddings", the Red Lion in Leytonstone and the Lord Rookwood at Wanstead. In fact I don't think there was a dance club anywhere from the West End to the East End that I didn't visit at least once. I was dancing mad! The Tottenham Royal, Ilford Palais, Barry's in Mare Street Hackney I did them all and in the early 60's all by public transport! Wonderful days.

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  7. Great interview! You could have brushed yoir hair, Dad, for the last picture :)

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  8. Ginger, Rob LOWE.14 February 2017 at 19:29

    I played the records in the puddings, devils kitchen and the Lotus in 1970/1. When Peter Ferdinand was manager of the Puddings, knew his family from Odessa road.

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  9. We used to go to all the venues in the area 66-70 ..The Lotus,Upper cut .Devils Kitchen (Puddings) Coopers Arms,Green Gate Bethnal Green and many ,many more East End Pubs.....we had a great time....Alas changing cultures forced pub closures such a shame ......

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  10. Jessie and Ted Pyman were my grandparents. My dad, Bill Hunt, was lead singer in the Chequers, one of the regular bands between 1961-1965. The other band members were Johnny Bean, Johnny Abrams, Pete Hopker and Johnny Wellington,

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    Replies
    1. Hi Andy I knew your dad and the band I went to college with John Bean and would like to contact him again he last lived in Hornchurch can you help regards to your dad

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