7 of June 2014
Disc jockey whose London club dominated the black music scene and became one of Muhammad Ali's favourite haunts.
As one of the first black DJs and nightclub owners in Britain, Count Suckle brought the sounds of Jamaica to the streets of London. For 22 years, the Cue club (later the Q club) in Praed Street, Paddington, was the epicentre of black music in the capital.
In 1954 Suckle — with two friends, Vincent Forbes (later the DJ Duke Vin) and Lenny Fry — stowed away on a cargo boat carrying bananas from Jamaica to England. After four days at sea — eating only the green bananas they found in the hold — they passed Cuba and emerged on to the deck, knowing that it would be too late for the captain to take them back. The journey lasted four weeks; once they landed in England, they quickly set about obtaining passports.
It was Vin who created the first sound system in Britain, but Count Suckle swiftly followed suit. At the time there were no black DJs in London clubs (many of which were for whites only). Suckle played at house parties in basement flats, where all the furniture was moved out of the main rooms, and at dances in Brixton and Battersea town halls.
He made it his business to source the sounds that people wanted to hear. As he built up a reputation on the London party circuit, he would contact Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee, and they would post to him the latest discs on the Sun, Chess and Modern/RPM labels. He also obtained records from Jamaica. In 1958, on the first night of the Notting Hill riots, he was playing at a party in a street off Ladbroke Grove when the house was set alight by a petrol bomb. The police had to escort Suckle and the revellers to safety while an angry mob of white working-class men stood outside shouting, “Kill the n*****s! Send them back home!”
Suckle became a regular DJ at the Flamingo Club, in Soho’s Wardour Street, where Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames had a residency in the early 1960s. Somebody told the owner, Rik Gunnell, that if he wanted to fill the club they needed to find Suckle. They did — in an illegal gambling club in Ladbroke Grove. “On his first time at the Flamingo, Wardour Street was blocked,” the DJ Daddy Vego recalled. “Nothing could pass up either way.” From then on James Brown’s Night Train, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat and other African-American imports, as well as West Indian ska and calypso records, throbbed through the streets of Soho.
Gunnell later opened another club, the Roaring Twenties, in Carnaby Street, where Suckle became the resident DJ. Black and white people could be found there dancing euphorically together. Suckle also occasionally served as the bouncer, greeting the Beatles, the Animals, and the Rolling Stones when they visited. Mick Jagger would borrow records from him.
Suckle knew he was the reason the crowd was swelling at Gunnell’s club. He decided to quit and find premises of his own. He chose the basement of a Victorian building at 5a Praed Street, and the Cue (or ‘Q’) Club opened in 1964. “All the stars used to go because it was open all weekend,” recalled Mick Inkpen, Elton John’s bandmate in Bluesology. “The party started on Friday night and was still going strong Monday morning.”
Bob Marley was among the reggae stars who performed there, and it became Muhammad Ali’s haunt on his visits to London. Before long, Suckle could afford to buy a cream-coloured Rolls-Royce Corniche.
The Q Club was exclusive and maintained strict standards of dress and decorum. The men wore flamboyant suits from Lord John and Cecil Gee. The singer Count Prince Miller, who performed there, recalled that the Rolling Stones were once turned away for being too scruffily dressed.
Suckle’s club continued to be successful throughout the Seventies and Eighties. He told the magazine Black Music: “We’ve always moved with the times . . . when we opened ska music was the thing, Prince Buster, Don Drummond, Reco, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Baba Brooks, y’know. They all played here when they toured London. We played all the latest things and the new dances caught on quick.”
He drove a hard bargain in his business dealings, but he was always encouraging of young musical talent. In the 1980s the Q Club dropped its membership requirement, changed its name to the People’s club, and featured a younger generation of DJs, such as David Rodigan and Tim Westwood. He eventually lost the lease on the club’s Praed Street premises after neglecting to extend it. “That was my downfall,” he reflected. The club closed in 1986 and the landlords sold the property for £3.5 million.
It was perhaps Suckle’s passion for gambling, rather than his failure to secure the lease for the Q Club, that was his undoing. He is thought to have lost as much as £2 million playing poker and kaluki (a form of contract rummy popular in Jamaica) at Georgie Rousso’s illegal gambling den on Edgware Road. His other vice was women, especially blondes, of which there were many at the Q Club.
Wilbert Augustus Campbell was born in Saint Mary Parish, Jamaica, in 1931. He had 12 siblings, and his mother, Imogen Bernard, used to call him Suckle because he preferred not to take his milk from the bottle. He attended a local primary school but his secondary education dwindled — his reading and writing remained poor throughout his life. He had a son, Everald, by Rosetta Whyte, a woman he met in Kingston, shortly before he left the island.
Everald was brought to England by his mother at the age of 11. For several years he worked in his father’s club, learning the ropes of the business — stocktaking and managing the door and bar staff. He tried to persuade his father to consolidate his success by investing money in property, but Suckle was too preoccupied by the music he loved and his gambling habit to heed his advice. Everald obtained a degree in business organisation from the University of Bradford and now works as an education training adviser. Suckle also had a daughter, Calita Jawando-Campbell, from a relationship with Julie Jawando, and a second son, Per-Morten Hewitt Campbell, with Claudette Hewitt. Calita recently completed a law degree and is a part-time DJ, while Per-Morten is a barrister.
In 2008 Suckle took part in the documentary, Duke Vin, Count Suckle and the Birth of Ska, which acknowledged his contribution to British popular music and dance culture.
Count Suckle, disc jockey and club owner, was born on August 12, 1931. He died of a heart attack on May 19, 2014, aged 82
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