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!


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

  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.

    1. my Dad Freddie Scott used to be a regular up your clubs at Stratford & forest gate

  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

    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 .

    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 .

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

  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 .

  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.

    1. I think I wrote this memory and have just stumbled across it when researching Barrie’s Dance Hall ant the Lotus.

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

  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.

  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 ......

  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,

    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

    2. Unfortunately John died 3 years ago after a long illness. He had been playing in a band called Rich Clifford & the Saddows and they were very good at covering all Cliffs numbers. All the rest of the Chequers are still around.

  11. Hi I use to work in the Lotus from 1981 for a couple of years. Helping out at the 2 Puddings as well. Really enjoyed it. Wished we had something like that now. I use to work on promotions and cocktail bar on Thursday night's. And the big bar on a Friday night. My name was Elizabeth Snow

  12. Great read..and fond memories of the Lotus, Jive Dive, Puddings, Room at the Top..erc. What a great time we had growing up in the 60s, best time ever. In fact met my now Wife in the Lotus..still together after 40 years. Lived in Forest Gate..around the corner to my old mate Ronnie Lane (Plonk)..we had some laughs together..this is while we were both still at school.

  13. I went to the Lotus fairly regularly in the mid to late sixties when Ska was big. Also saw the Move play there. Got chased down the stairs by some bloe who thought I was screwing (staring at)him cos I was too vain to wear my glasses. Ran round the corner and hid in a front garden in Woodgrange Road!
    Cheers Les

  14. I used to go to the Lotus club in the 1970's with my friends, it was our end of the evening venue. others were going to the Room at the Top which we really didn't like. we could dance at the Lotus. I met my husband there, we have been married 41 years. When and Why did the Lotus close?

  15. I used to go to the Jive Dive and the Lotus ballroom. We would first meet up in the Princess Alice and have a few pints to get up courage to ask girls in the Lotus for a dance. Occasionally there would be a short scrap but it never seemed to last very long. I can clearly remember a guy called David Weekes fighting across the dance floors all done up in a black Crombie overcoat. There used to be a chubby guy who danced really well. He wasn't interested in girls but they loved to dance with him because he was a really good dancer. The Jive Dive had a great club atmosphere, kind of intimate, dark and close together. No trouble there, not inside anyway. A friend pointed out a man he said was named David Edwards who was a really tough guy but he was kind of quiet and you'd never have guessed it. I was told he had brothers. Did anyone ever drink at the Black Lion in Plaistow. I used to meet up there on a Wednesday with friends. Used to drink John Courage ale. Great stuff! Did anyone ever go to Barry's in Mare Street Hackney. I used to admire the brilliant girl dancers there. They were so inventive in their choreography.
    Great Days.

    1. I knew Dave Weekes. I think the chubby guy you’re referring to was my mate Mickey Colby who was indeed a very good dancer. In fact I was so pleased when one day he casually remarked to another mate of mine when I was dancing at the Ilford Palais that “Atkins is bad is he”. High praise from the master. I too used to go to Barry’s and confirm that it was noted for the best dancers.

    2. Mickey Colby’s comment should read “Atkins isn’t bad is he”

  16. Used to work playing music at the 2 puddings downstairs. Went upstairs after to dance. My friend and I then used to get a lift to the lotus and work as bar staff table service till late. Was brilliant time and was sometimes little fights but nothing like nowadays! Loved the music atmosphere everything! Had food when we finished with what was left in kitchen after we closed. Can’t remember how we got home???! Kenny was a good employer and Eddie was lovely. Remember having to play rod Stewart Maggie May when it was released as kenny knew him and was good as it was such a long track could run to loo and get back b4 it finished. Great memories. Gill

  17. I’m Vic Johnson .. no relation , as a young lad li was always attending The Lotus and The Uppercut saw some amazing bands at both gigs , I was always disparate to join a band myself, eventually I joined a band Stacy’s Circle and I phoned Kenny if he could give us any gigs !! To my amazement he offered us a support to The Small Faces at East Ham Town Hall , what an amazing time that was the , Stevie invited us to a Party afterwards, we got an invite to support them again , that’s where I met a good friend of Kenny’s Ted Lemon who decided to manage us .. he fixed us up to go to The Top Ten in Hamburg we did well there and managed to stay for 4 months when we came home he sent us to France ! Another fantastic time playing there we drove the in Sean Buckley’s van because ours broke down . I’m still in touch with the remaining members of that band that became Story !! Kev Sheehan guitar Dave Simmons drums, Roy Skinner who now lives in Australia.. fabulous times and memories 🤘

  18. My dad was Jack Palmer who was the Manager of The Trend a band who gigged at the Lotus in the 1960's and he knew Kenny very well. In fact my dad met my Mum here, I believe when it was the Lotus Ballroom. A really interesting article to read. Hi Kenny, hope you are well !

  19. My friend georgina and I were always in lotus an uppercut brilliant memories thanks to all for the fun cheers Julie

  20. I remember Kenny and his wife really well from the late 60s to the 70s. I was married to Alan Page whose Uncle Brian worked at the Lotus. We often socialised with Kenny I am sure he had a restaurant called Bunters I think at Woodford and did he own a Chinese next to the Palais? Could be wrong such a long time ago. I loved the music at the Lotus great for
    dancing and at the end of the evening there would be a long table of us sitting eating with Kenny and his wife.

  21. Sorry just remembered Kenny's wife whose name unfortunately I can't remember but I remember being at the Lotus one evening and she had plaster on her arm having broken it. I asked her how she had done it and I think she said roller skating! Priceless I remember laughing but in a good way so amazing she had been doing that brilliant!


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