The two most outstanding live club acts from the 60s were Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band and Jimmy James and the Vagabonds. Both signed with Pye Records and whilst they enjoyed moderate success as recording artists they were unquestionably the best live soul performers in the UK during the late 60s.
The Ram Jam Band formed circa 1964 as a Blue Beat band by Pete Gage (guitar) and Geoff Pullum (keyboards). They took the name from an old Inn on the A1 called the Ram Jam Inn. The band’s frontman was Jamaican, Errol Dixon a well-known Ska singer on the London club circuit. Dixon has released several singles prior to joining the group.
Sensing a change in musical taste, the group decided to change direction and wanted to play American soul. Keen to have an American singer Dixon was replaced by Geno Washington. Pete knew him from performing the Bentwaters USAF Base, East Anglia and offered to help finance him with his demobbing from the US Airforce to the States. On his return to the UK Geno joined the band. The group recorded "Shake Shake Senora" but it failed to attract attention.
The band managed to build up a strong following with the Mods due to their their energetic performances of soul music.
In 1966 they released a live album, which was rare for time, called Hand Clappin, Foot Stompin, Funky-Butt ... Live! It reached no.5 on the UK albums chart, and remained in the charts for 38 weeks.
The following year a second live album, Hipster Flipsters Finger Poppin' Daddies reached no.8 on the chart.
The group had far less success in the singles charts because their strength was very much in their live performances.
The band eventually broke up in 1969 and Geno Washington continued as a solo artist before returning to the United States. They did reform and Geno Washington and (new) The Ram Jam Band now enjoy popularity on the retro circuit.
In 1980, Dexys Midnight Runners had a number 1 hit with "Geno" written by Kevin Archer and Kevin Rowland. The song was in tribute to Geno Washington, and performed in approximately the style of the Ram Jam Band with the saxophone riff inspired by Washington's "(I Gotta) Hold on to My Love".
Michael James was born in 1940 in the US but was brought up in Kingston, Jamaica.
By the age of 20 he had two Number 1 Ska hits in Jamaican, "Bewildered and Blue," (1959) and "Come to Me Softly, (1960). Jimmy was asked to join the Vagabonds in 1960 and the group released the album, Presenting the Fabulous Vagabonds to critical success in 1964. The Vagabonds line-up was Rupert Balgobin (drums), Phillip Chen (rhythm guitar), Coleson Chen (bass), Wallace Wilson (lead guitar), Carl Noel (organ), Carl Griffiths & Fred Fredericks (sax), and showman extraordinaire Count Prince Miller, a crowd-pleaser who got the audience involved in the show.
Keen to pursue their careers the group relocated to London in 1965 and Decca released the album “Ska Time” under the name of Jamaica's Own Vagabonds. This is thought to be the first Jamaican ska music to be recorded in the UK.
The band quickly established themselves as regulars at the Marquee Club and were signed by Columbia and released "Shoo-Be-Doo You're Mine," to a look warm response. They switched labels to Pye Records (Picadilly) and released "I Feel Alright," followed by a cover of the Dells' "Hey Diddley Dee Dum Dum (It's A Good Good Feeling)" both singles sold reasonably well but failed to chart .
Jimmy James and the Vagabonds became one of the most popular live acts in the UK and like Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band were courted by the Mods across the country. Jimmy had a powerful voice ideal for the soul songs of the era. The band were managed by Pete Meaden (former manager of the Who). In 1966 the group released their best known studio album, The New Religion in 1966.
Sales were mediocre and once Pye realised the band had been under promoted after the seventh single failed to chart they were switched to the main label.
Pye released "I Can't Get Back Home to My Baby," in 1967 and a live album “London Swings: Live at the Marquee Club” , with one half to James & the Vagabonds and the other to fellow nightclub favorites the Alan Bown Set.
In 1968 James & the Vagabonds released a cover of Neil Diamond’s "Red Red Wine," and the single gave the band their first chart success, peaking at number 36. Then later in the same year his re-recorded version of "Come to Me Softly" was a minor hit in the US. Despite their sellout performances Jimmy James and the Vagabonds failed to translate into strong record sales, and commercial success remained elusive.
By the end of the 60s soul music became passe chart wise and The Vagabonds called it quits in 1970. Their last album was LP Better By Far
Jimmy owned the name Vagabonds and recruited a new (all white) Vagabonds of Chris Garfield (guitar), Alan Wood (bass), Russell Courtney (drums), and Alan Kirk (keyboards). They continued to perform at live gigs and record. In 1971 he recorded the cult classic "Help Yourself."
Whilst, "I'll Go Where Your Music Takes Me" and "Now Is The Time," were not hits, the singles sold well enough and found a new eager audience in Northern Soul.
Meantime Count Prince Miller had a solo reggae hit in 1971 with "Mule Train."
Jimmy James continues to regularly perform around the UK.