|Vernon Nesbeth, The Southlanders
It is now four decades since Vernon Nesbeth formed The Southlanders, the longest lasting vocal group in British pop music history. Originally from Jamaica, Vernon came to Britain as a teenager in 1950 after winning an "Opportunity Knocks" contest in his native country. His first public performance in Britain was in a singing contest at the Paramount Club in the West End, which at time was the only Dance Hall in London which allowed unaccompanied black men in. Buoyed by his success at home, and backed by the Harry Webb band, Vernon gave it his all - and finished second to last! This shock sent him looking for a music teacher and he was given the address of the renowned black actor, singer and teacher, Edric Connor. On meeting, Vernon told the man destined to become his mentor that he wanted to learn music, to which Connor replied "I can't teach music, but I can teach you how to sing". This he set out to do, and Vernon attended lessons once a week for the next two years. Edric Connor never charged him, saying, "My payment will be the success I make you".
By late 1953 Edric Connor was planning to record an LP of songs from the Caribbean and asked Vernon to form a quartet of backing singers. He recruited Frank Mannah, brothers Alan and Harry Wilmot (Harry was the father of popular contemporary British entertainer Gary Wilmot) from the Ken Hunter Quartet, and they made their live debut singing two songs from the LP at a celebrity nightclub in London.
Now known as "The Caribbeans", shortly afterwards, whilst rehearsing in Weeks Studio, Hanover Street, two men walked in after hearing the singing from the street and offered to manage them. They were Sid Green and Les Farrell who suggested a change of name; so "The Southlanders" were born, signed to the Grade Organization and began touring the UK variety circuit plus dates in Europe where they established a reputation in Germany, Italy, France and Belgium.
In 1955 the Southlanders signed to Parlophone and released their first single, "Earth Angel" which was produced by George Martin, several years before he came to prominence with Peter Sellers' comedy albums and the Beatles' recordings. Four more singles were released on Parlophone but it wasn't until they switched to Decca in 1957 that the Southlanders got their one, and only, top-ten hit "Alone", which is said to have sold 750,000 copies in the first few weeks of release. But it is their sixth and last Decca release that the Southlanders are most identified with, the novelty "Mole In A Hole", which they are required to do at every performance. The Southlanders then moved onto Top Rank and in 1961 released their last single "Imitation of Love".
Throughout the late 50s and early 60s the Southlanders appeared regularly on the top rated television programmes of the day becoming familiar faces on such shows as 6.5 Special and Crackerjack. Live performances, however, have always been, and still are, the most important aspect of the Southlanders and they were among the first to join Jimmy Saville's Mecca dance hall shows. Since then they have continuously appeared in concerts, cabarets and cruise ships throughout the world often supporting the top comedians of the day such as Jim Davidson, Michael Barrymore, Mike Read, Bobby Davro & Jimmy Cricket captivating these audiences with their stylish, highly entertaining act.
Of the original Southlanders Harry Wilmot died in 1961, Alan retired in 1974 and Frank Mannah died in 1991 leaving Vernon Nesbeth as lead singer and main focal point of the group. Vernon's dedication to the Southlanders has no limit and his stage performance would leave artists half his age breathless (literally!). With the help of his wife, Wendy, he arranges the music, choreographs the dance moves and trains all newcomers to the group to the very high standards he has set and is still as effervescent, dynamic and enthusiastic about the group he created as he was in the 1950's.
Forty-eight years after their foundation, next year should be a good one for the Southlanders. Along with the usual round of live appearances, their 1998 CD "We" (produced for sale at concerts - and containing eleven new songs (nine by Vernon) plus the obligatory "Mole In A Hole") is going on general release, and there are plans for a compilation CD of all twenty original recordings. Perhaps Vernon will also find the time to write that long-promised autobiography!
Special thanks to Paul Armstrong (ABP Promotions)
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