The East End club that hosted Jimi Hendrix

Marco Marcelline 14 June 2021

Open for just a year in the '60s, the Upper Cut club had many greats perform on its stage—and it's where Jimi Hendrix wrote "Purple Haze" 

Tucked away in the rough streets of what was then the far east end of London stood a nightclub that attracted some of the biggest musicians in the world such as Nina Simone, and Jimi Hendrix. The Upper Cut Club opened its doors for just 12 months between 1966 and 1967.

The club is truly remarkable for the fact that it hosted such huge British and US musicians despite being open for such a short time, and not least for being located in the neighbourhood of Forest Gate, in the historically working class borough of Newhaminstead of the dizzy heights of the West End.

Amazingly, the club is also known for the fact that Jimi Hendrix wrote his career classic Purple Haze while playing at the club on Boxing Day, 1966. His show was a bargain too, with tickets costing just £5 in today’s money. It wasn’t just tickets that were cheap but the drinks were tooaccording to John Walker, the founder of the historic blog E7 Now & Then, which documents the past of Forest Gate, beer came at around 10p per pint.

"Hendrix's show was a bargain too, with tickets costing just £5 in today’s money"

A flyer promoting the opening week of the Clubnote Jimi Hendrix's name is mispelt. Courtesy of local history blog: E7NowAndThen

Hendrix was so little known to UK audiences at the time of his first show at the Upper Cut on Boxing Day 1966, that his name was spelt wrong on the flyers advertising his gig, while entry to the show cost just five shillings. The show sold out quickly regardless.

It was in the dressing room of the Upper Cut club, while awaiting his performance that Hendrix finished the lyrics to his iconic song “Purple Haze”. The song has been named as one of the greatest songs by Rolling Stone of all time, while Q Mag has listed it as the greatest ever recorded.

While Britain wasand isno racial utopia by any means, it did allow for African-American musicians coming from the segregated States to, as John says, “walk through the same front door as the white acts”. This is what encouraged and made London so appealing for fledgling musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, as it offered some respite and a change from segregated US clubs and music venues.

The opening line up in December 1966 featured The Who as the headliners. The club also played The Small Faces in January 1967, before hosting legendary jazz artist Otis Redding in April.

A Stratford Express newspaper cut-out covering the opening party of the Upper Cut, December 1966. Courtesy of local history blog: E7NowAndThen

The legendary Nina Simone then played a gig in April 1967, before the Club also hosted Stevie Wonder, and Eric Clapton.

The club’s venue once used to be Forest Gate Public Hall, and from 1902 until 1966 it ranged from being a theatre, a cinema, and a skating rink, before the stars of the US jazz and blues scene descended to play to adoring crowds.

Gladys Letty, was a Forest Gate resident in the 1960s and 1970s, and she fondly remembers going to the dance at the club as a 24-25 year old.

“We lived just around the corner from The Upper Cut so it was great that we didn’t have to drive to attend shows. During the mid-60s there were some really good singers so we took advantage of seeing them.” Gladys recalls seeing acts such as Eric Burdon & The Animals, The Spencer Davis Group, Booker T & The MG, and Nina Simone.

“I wasn’t into the teeny bopper stuff [soft rock and pop that was popular in the 50s and 60s] and the [acts] I saw [at the Upper Cut] were more funk and blues than many of the other acts that appeared.”

But she couldn’t get in to see some of the most famous acts to grace the club’s 6ft stage like Jimi Hendrix in addition to some “of the other US groups because those tickets went fast”.

A surviving example of club memorabilia. Courtesy of local history blog: E7NowAndThen.

Barbara Hollis, who was 21 when the Club opened its doors on Woodgrange Road, went there almost every Saturday night for the duration of its establishment. She recalls that before it became the Upper Cut, it was a roller skating rink, which she used to go to as well. 

“The atmosphere was great, and many good nights were had there—I saw The Who there as well.” By the time the Club closed, Barbara had moved to the US, but found its closure sad nonetheless.

Across the street from where the Club, there was another popular nightclub called the Lotus, which also later manifested as a casino in the 1970s.

The Upper Cut’s owners, brothers Billy and George Walker, were both professional boxers in the 1960s, with the former being fairly successful on the national stage, and was popularly known by boxing fans as the “blond bomber” for his good looks.

Ex -co owner of the Upper Cut club Billy Walker holding a poster promoting Jimi Hendrix flyer

Billy Walker holding a flyer promoting Jimi Hendrix's first performance at the Upper Cut. Courtesy of local history blog: E7NowAndThen

The Upper Cut began its short history when the Public Hall became vacant following the closure of the skating rink, the owner of the Lotus club had sought to buy it but the Walker brothers jumped first and secured the lease.

Billy stepped back and George managed most of the financial side of the Club, and according to John Walker, he was very tight when it came to paying actsallegedly the Club only paid £20 (£381 in today’s money) in total to The Who to share between them for their opening gig.

"Allegedly the Club only paid £20 in total to The Who to share between them for their opening gig"

George Walker had also spent time in Wormwood Scrubs in the 1960s due to his association with gangs, and is also alleged to have been a friend of the infamous gangster Kray twins. His business ventures began when he managed the career of his younger brother Billy, before starting a business portfolio that eventually consisted of West End theatres, casinos, the Trocadero and what would become Brent Cross shopping centre. He ran into huge amounts of debt however and John adds: “George went criminally bankrupt for the largest sum of money in UK history then: £1.4 billion.”

The club regularly hit problems with the council after neighbours complained of noise issues, and parking issues. In fact, Newham Council had attempted to shut down the club halfway through its tenure due to the sheer number of complaints by local residents. And of course, after just one year of being open, the club shut its doors and became a bingo club the following year in 1968.

The Upper Cut site, on Woodgrange Road, taken long after its demise in 1991. The building was then demolished in 2000. Courtesy of local history blog: E7NowAndThen

The building in which the club stood was eventually demolished in 2000 to make way for a Channel Tunnel rail ventilation shaft, and now all that stands in memory of the club is a newly minted blue plaque dedicated to Jimi Hendrix and the fact he wrote “Purple Haze” at the Club.

"I really wanted to celebrate the fact that Jimi Hendrix wrote the lyrics to one of his most iconic songs before he performed at the Upper Cut Club"

Neandra Etienne, a local journalist and fashion stylist, campaigned for the reinstatement of a plaque after the original had been taken down. “I didn’t just want to write about the Purple Haze story, I wanted to replace the plaque that had been taken down. I really wanted to celebrate the fact that Jimi Hendrix wrote the lyrics to one of his most iconic songs before he performed at the Upper Cut Club.”

She added: “Now that the Newham Heritage plaque has been installed everyone will know that the song was written in Forest Gate, Newham.”

From left to right: Lloyd, Neandra, Paul at the plaque's unveiling ©Andrew Baker

The unveiling of the plaque was celebrated through an online event that included local historians and Leon Hendrix, the brother of the legendary guitarist who is also a musician. At the event, Lloyd Jeans, a Forest Gate historian and musician, spoke of the particular importance of the chord “Purple Haze” was played in: “In this song Jimi Hendrix used the chord of E7 [also the postcode for Forest Gate] but to give it a striking dissonance he added a sharp ninth on top. So influential is this masterpiece of rock music that the chord is now known the world over as the ‘Purple Haze’ chord’.”

For a club that stood for such a short length of time, it could easily have been forgotten. But efforts to reinstate its legacy have lasted, and its impact cannot be erased.

Read more: The music revolution of the 1960s

Read more: 5 UK Jazz musicians you don't want to miss

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