Three things have happened in the last week and they have all been unified by one unsung musical genius: John Carter.
“Only Connect” is a quiz show where the questions are really hard and rely more on lateral thinking than obscure knowledge. One of the rounds is always a musical round and the contestants have to find a connection between four songs. This week, the connection was four songs about sleeping and the first song they played (after 4 minutes) was “Tossing And Turning” by The Ivy League.
On Wednesday I met Pete for a walk in Brighton and we walked along the sea front, bought coffee and cake, sat on a bench overlooking the beach and ruminated hard, as we do every Wednesday. Two old men on a bench, glorying in the old days. As well as laughing about the grammatical errors made by the Headteacher at the school we used to teach at, we also reminisced about our five road trips across the USA, which always ended up in San Francisco. This was where a friend of Pete’s lived and she always graciously allowed us to stay in her lovely house. As we travelled West on the I40, we would invariably sing “Let’s Go To San Francisco “ by The Flower Pot Men.
I was very pleased to get a message from Richard on Wednesday. I hadn’t seen him since the start of the pandemic and I miss going to gigs with him. He introduced me to Waxahatchee, William Tyler, Courtney Marie Andrews, Lankum, Dar Williams, Lucy Dacus and Michelle Stodart amongst many others. He has been reading my posts and was interested in the “Separate Paths Together” compilation (where I tried to link every song to The Beatles ) and also the “Good As Gold” compilation (a collection of songs linked by the Apple organisation). Mary Hopkin is mentioned in both posts and her entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 was “Knock Knock Who’s There?”
When I met Richard for a couple of beautiful pints of Harvey’s at The Hassocks pub, I was fascinated to hear that his uncle, John Carter, was responsible for all three of these songs as well as countless others. I’ve tried to piece together his career but it is so rich and varied and he wrote so many magnificent songs, I fear that I am only scratching the surface of his achievements.
John Shakespeare was born in 1942 and when he was at school in Birmingham in the 1950s, he met Ken Hawker and they formed a skiffle band called LVI (which, I guess, stood for Lower Sixth). They started writing their own songs and moved to London, renaming themselves John Carter and Ken Lewis. Terry Kennedy became their manager and he went on to produce a huge number of well known records including two Donovan albums.
John Carter and Ken Lewis wrote “Will I What”, a Number 18 hit for Mike Sarne, which was performed with Billie Davis. This was the follow up to “Come Outside”, which Mike Sarne had recorded with Wendy Richards.
They recorded covers of chart hits for such BBC programmes as “Easy Beat” and “Saturday Club” and in 1961, the two musicians formed their own band, Carter-Lewis And The Southerners. Members of the band briefly included Jimmy Page and also included Viv Prince, later to be a member of The Pretty Things.
Amongst singles that John Carter and Ken Lewis wrote are “Is It True” by Brenda Lee, “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” by Herman’s Hermits (a big hit in the USA and a minor hit in the UK for Goldie And The Gingerbreads) and “Sunday For Tea” by Peter And Gordon. A song called “Little Bit O’ Soul” was recorded by a Coventry band, The Little Darlings (without success) and was covered by an American band from Ohio, called Music Explosion, who took the song to Number One in the USA, eventually selling over one million copies.
The Ivy League
In 1964, John Carter and Ken Lewis formed The Ivy League along with Perry Ford. Before releasing their own songs, The Ivy league sang backing vocals on “I Can’t Explain” by The Who, “Always Something There To Remind Me” by Sandie Shaw and “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones.
The Ivy League released a number of singles including “Funny How Love Can Be”, “That’s Why I’m Crying” and “Tossing And Turning”, which reached Numbers 8, 22 and 3 respectively in the U.K. Charts.
Perry Ford (who was born as Brian Pugh and was also known as Lou Bryan), had been a member of Colin Hicks And The Cabin Boys before forming The Ivy League with John Carter and Ken Lewis. Colin Hicks was Tommy Steele’s brother and The Cabin Boys also included Jimmy Nicol, who subsequently played eight shows with The Beatles when Ringo Starr had tonsillitis. Perry Ford had recorded three singles that were produced by George Martin and then joined Vince Taylor’s backing band, The Playboys. Vince Taylor once told David Bowie that he was a cross between a God and an alien and this meeting provided David Bowie with the inspiration for the character of Ziggy Stardust.
The Flower Pot Men
In 1966, John Carter left The Ivy League because he did not want to tour and he was replaced by Tony Burrows. He sung lead vocals on “Winchester Cathedral” by The New Vaudeville Band. This band was created by Geoff Stephens with whom John Carter began another successful songwriting partnership.
John Carter and Geoff Stephens also wrote “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. Jones” for Manfred Mann and “There’s A Kind Of Hush”, initially for The New Vaudeville Band but, later, a big hit for Herman’s Hermits and The Carpenters.
Ken Lewis left The Ivy League in 1967 and was replaced by Neil Landon. Almost immediately, John Carter and Ken Lewis reunited to form The Flower Pot Men. The two of them recorded “Lets Go To San Francisco” and invented the name “Flower Pot Men”, using a combination of references to marijuana and the children’s TV programme with Bill and Ben. The song reached Number Four in the U.K. Charts but John Carter and Ken Lewis had no interest in touring so a group of musicians was assembled to undertake touring duties.
Members of The Flower Pot Men touring band included
- Jon Lord (keyboards) and Nick Simper (bass) who would go on to form Deep Purple.
- Tony Burrows (vocals) who went on to sing lead vocals for Edison Lighthouse and The Brotherhood Of Man.
- Neil Landon (vocals). He had been in a group called The Burnettes, along with Noel Redding and Pete Kircher. (Pete Kircher later joined Honeybus and eventually drummed with Status Quo between 1982 and 1985.) The Burnettes had previously recorded two songs written by John Carter and Ken Lewis but they failed to chart. Neil Landon replaced Ken Lewis in The Ivy League, joined The Flower Pot Men and, in 1968, reunited with Noel Redding to form Fat Mattress.
- Gordon Haskell (bass) had been a member of the sensational Fleur De Lys and, after playing in The Flower Pot Men, he became the lead singer for King Crimson on their remarkable 1970 album, “Lizard” He subsequently led a productive but little known solo career until he had a huge hit with the single “How Wonderful You Are”, which was a U.K. Christmas Number Two in 2001. This was followed by a hit album “Harry’s Bar”.
- Carlo Little (drums) had played in an early incarnation of The Rolling Stones before Charlie Watts joined the band. He joined Screaming Lord Sutch’s band, (The Savages), he taught Keith Moon how to play drums really loudly and joined Billie Davis’ backing band.
- Ged Peck (guitar) had played with Billy Fury, Vince Eager and Tommy Quickly, when he was managed by Brian Epstein. He formed close musical associations with many musicians who went on to join successful bands without him. He played with Jon Lord and Nick Simper before they formed Deep Purple; he played with Alan Cartwright and B.J.Wilson before they formed Procol Harum; he turned down an opportunity to join The Foundations (co-founded by Mike Eliot, a former member of The Cabin Boys).
John Carter and Ken Lewis continued to write, record and produce most of the music made by The Flower Pot Men over the next three years until lack of chart success forced Deram, their record label, to insist that the touring band record songs written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. This touring band then transformed into White Plains.
The Flowerpot Men never released an album while they were active and “Let’s Go To San Francisco” is a compilation released in 1985, 15 years after the group dissolved. The album contains the singles “Let’s Go To San Francisco” (along with the B side, “Let’s Go To San Francisco (Part 2)), “A Walk In The Sky” (with the B side, “Am I Losing You”) and “Man Without A Woman” (with the B side, “You Can Never Be Wrong”). Other tracks on the album were recorded independently of John Carter and Ken Lewis.
Once his association with The Flowerpot Men had finished, John Carter wrote “Knock, Knock Who’s There” with Geoff Stephens. This was the British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970, sung by Mary Hopkin and it came second.
In 1974, John Carter put together a group called First Class. The impetus for the formation of the group was a song that John Carter had written with his wife Gill Shakespeare called “Beach Baby”. Tony Burrows was brought in to sing lead vocals on the song which reached Number 13 in the U.K. Charts. History repeated itself when John Carter showed no interest in touring and so a touring band was assembled. He produced the only two albums that First Class made.
John Carter wrote two further songs that were hits. Ohio Express were an American “bubblegum” band who had a minor hit with “Cowboy Convention”. John Carter and Gill Shakespeare wrote and recorded “Dreams Are Ten A Penny” which he released under the name Kincade. The song sold over a million copies, mainly in Germany. Once again, a touring band was assembled but John Carter had no wish to join them.
Using his real name of John Shakespeare, he composed scores for British films, and in 2005, he released a compilation album called “John Carter – A Rose By Any Other Name” which includes many of the songs mentioned in this post along with many others that I haven’t touched upon. To get an indication of the huge portfolio of contributions that John Shakespeare has made to popular music, have a look at his page on “discogs“.
To see the great man being interviewed, here’s an incredible interview with him and Gill Shakespeare, recorded only a few weeks ago.