A night of significance that would a few years to recognize. That was this day in 1956, when according to On This Day, the BBC broadcast it’s very first pop radio program – The Six Five Special. It would soon spawn their first pop music TV show too, which had the same name.
The BBC, or British Broadcasting System, had been around for over thirty years by then. The first radio programs began in 1922 and in ’27 they were given a royal charter to be the monopoly radio-provider for Britain. But most of their programming it would seem was classical music, perhaps some big bands, and news, speeches from royalty, that sort of thing. The proper “Beeb” had no time for the silliness of youth and their music. But by ’56, Elvis was catching on worldwide, and at home “skiffle”, an odd sort of mix of jazz, folk, rock & roll and other elements was becoming popular. And a great place to find it was on Old Compton Road in London, near Chinatown at the 2I’s Coffee house.
2I’s was one of many cafes in the city, described by Medium.com as “dingy places, reeking of tobacco.” But they were popular, espresso had been discovered by the Brits, and not being licensed for alcohol they could stay open late and serve teens. 2I’s had been run by brothers Freddy and Sammy Irani (hence the “2 I’s”) but by ’56 sold to a couple of ex-wrestlers, Rebel Ray Hunter and Paul Lincoln. They saw the potential to cash in on the skiffle fad and decided to have live music on the stage in the cramped basement, which was supposed to hold upto 80 people (but often had far more.) Among the early names to appear and be “discovered” there were Cliff Richard and Petula Clark. So, the BBC decided it was the place to be for their pop radio show.
Apparently it was a hit for the BBC and the cafe. Soon it was being described as “the place to be” for up and coming musicians and “a magnet for pop singers, agents and music entrepreneurs.” An official historical plaque placed there by the government describes it as “the birthplace of British rock & roll.” Among the people one might have found there were future star producer Mickie Most, waiting tables, and Peter Grant, working as a bouncer before he hooked up with Led Zeppelin and became their manager.
The TV show only ran a year and a half, and it would take until 1964 for BBC TV to get back into pop music, with Top of the Pops. The 2I’s itself began to lose steam in the ’60s and closed in 1970. But they’d both played their role. It brought new rock music to eager British ears and likely kick-started many a musical dream and career. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the same month the radio began airing the Six Five Special, up north in the land one John Lennon started a band, the Quarrymen whom after a few personnel changes became a little better known… as the Beatles.