LOOKING BACK - October 31, 2019 edition

Reporter recalls early years of pop star Tony Newman

Tony Newman as a young musician in the 1960s

Rugby’s legendary rock band Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours are back in their home town for a charity gig at the Railway Club on Friday, November 8.

Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott looks back at the early life of guitarist Tony Newman, who wrote the band’s hit single Mirror, Mirror back in the 1960s…

Tony Newman was always going to do something with his life.

Pinkertons Assorted Colours performing in the 1960s, having started out being called The Liberators

The country boy from Churchover was never going to settle for a working lifetime in one of the local factories, collect his retirement gift, and that would be it.

No. There was always going to be more. From the very beginning, you could just tell… young Tony wanted a piece of the action.

Tony lived just up the road from me and first showed a penchant for showbiz around the middle 1950s when he asked my father – who ran Churchover Boys’ Club – whether he could stage a puppet show on the club premises.

My father said yes, go ahead. And the thing that I remember is him not only praising Tony for showing great initiative, but also the fact that the lad had actually made his own puppets, too.

Pinkertons will be back in Rugby performing in a charity concert on November 8, 2019

Around the same time, Tony had attended a bonfire night celebration at the home of fellow villagers Hywel and Wendy Busfield. Wendy’s father, Eddie Lowe, had been a guitarist in a 1930s dance band operating in the Rugby area, and Tony was intrigued.

Perhaps Mr Lowe might show him a few chords, he thought. And that’s exactly what happened.

It wasn’t long before Tony had acquired his own guitar, an ‘f hole’ instrument, the kind of which seemed to be the only acoustic on offer back in the days when rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy.

But of course, in those days it wasn’t enough to merely have the gear. You needed the look too. And that came easy for young Tony, because he really looked the part, oh yes he did.

Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vee, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley. The pop world was then full of good looking teen stars.

And Eddie Cochran, too. He was one of Tony’s favourite performers, so it’s little wonder that when our young village lad stood in front of his bedroom mirror, complete with guitar and teenage rebel look, it was artists such as these who would provide the template.

Tony must have practised hard and soon had enough chords to take the next step. Working in a Rugby factory by day, he played in a succession of groups by night, eventually being instrumental in forming The Liberators.

As a recent Advertiser article reported, Tony and his group auditioned for impresario Reg Calvert’s Clifton Hall rock stable. Although the first audition didn’t go well, Calvert gave them a second chance, and this would prove successful. They were on their way.

Success came quickly, as it did so often back in the early 1960s.

Although slightly younger than Tony, I was by now going to local venues such as Rugby Benn Hall, Bradby Boys’ Club, The Railway Club and St Peter’s Hall, where teenagers could dance the night away every weekend.

By this time, American rhythm and blues was huge in Britain. The Liberators, along with countless other groups, played more or less the same repertoire, numbers by artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed and Solomon Burke.

Do You Love Me? by The Contours was a firm favourite, I recall. All the groups did that one.

In 1965, The Liberators became Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours, fronted by Sam ‘Pinkerton’ Kempe and soon charted in the Top Ten with Tony’s composition Mirror, Mirror. And the rest, as they say is history…

I have many fond memories of Tony and one in particular. On bonfire night, 1968, I was returning from a journalistic assignment when the van in which I was travelling crashed in Barby Lane, fortuitously not far from the Rugby Hospital of St Cross.

My left leg was badly broken, and after being released from hospital, I was confined to my home in Churchover in order to convalesce.

Tony heard about my plight, and regularly visited me. He was by then not only a local hero, but also a national pop star.

So you can imagine how chuffed I was when he would turn up with his beautiful J200 Gibson and we would have a guitar session.

But that was Tony all over. Despite the fame and adulation, he never forgot his Churchover roots. And that is why I’m glad and proud to have known this gentle, modest and unassuming guy, who not only knew what he wanted out of life, but also had the energy and drive to achieve it.

Footnote: John Phillpott left Rugby in 1969 and went on to pursue a career in provincial and national journalism.

His book Beef Cubes and Burdock: Memories of a 1950s Country Childhood is about his boyhood days in Churchover and makes several mentions of Tony Newman.

It was published last year by Austin Macauley and is available on Amazon and at bookshops.