Conversation with Billy Jenkins -
September 24th 2003
In 2003, the Anglo-American jazz singer Lizzie Welch
came to interview Billy as part of an
academic research project.
Her knowledge of the genre and mutual musical empathy
encouraged BJ to talk frankly about some never
discussed facets of his career and early influences.
LW. OK. When and where were you born?
BJ. South East London, Bromley in Kent… Suburbia in
July 1956. Which was the year Wes Montgomery died I
think, possibly, maybe I’m wrong.
LW Was Wes Montgomery a hero of yours?
BJ. No (laughter) he’s a guitarist, I don’t know,
maybe he is. He died of a heart attack. It would have
been in 1968…that he died, why did I say that? I try
to find reference points of musicians that went then,
but no, Billy Jenkins was an American cowboy. He was a
German called Erich Rudolf Otto Rosenthal.
As a kid he sat at the feet of Buffalo Bill Cody,
who was touring Germany with his Wild West Show. He
was so besotted with cowboys that he emigrated to
America, met a woman called Jenkins, married her,
changed his name to Billy Jenkins and started his own
Wild West Show and wrote books about cowboys. True.
I’ve got one of them somewhere.
LW. And he died when you were born? So you could be a
reincarnation of him?
BJ. Yep, before I was born, but then maybe I don’t
believe in reincarnation.
LW. Do you believe in reincarnation?
LW. So you believe when you’re dead your dead and that’s
all there is to it? This is your last shot, and after
that you’re compost?
BJ. Yep, you’re here once. There’s no After life.
LW. So you’re definitely not a Buddhist then?
BJ. No, although I would veer more towards that then
LW. What or who inspired you to become a musician?
BJ. I only took up the violin because I hated school
and my eldest sister, who was the closest to me in the
family, took violin lessons at lunchtime. And I
thought that if I took the violin, I could be with her
at lunchtime and escape the noise in the playground.
That’s why I started playing violin.
LW. So your first instrument was the violin?
BJ. Yes, I was about eight or nine. And I got Grade 1
Distinction! And that was the last one except for my
cycling proficiency, I got 99%.
LW. So was your violin teacher an inspiration?
BJ. She was alright, yea, she was very committed. But
I hated classical music. I liked electric guitars and
the Radio. We had to listen in secret because we
weren’t allowed to listen to the pop station. The
Light Programme I think it was called. On BBC Radio.
And I liked things like the Dave Clarke Five “Bits
and Pieces” and the Kinks. I liked the sound of that.
So when I got my first violin, I got home and rushed
into the back room and Mum was there with some
neighbours having afternoon tea, like they do in
Bromley, and I got the “guitar” out and said “Look, my
first guitar”. And this woman looked at me and said, “
I don’t think so, Dearie”. And I thought, “fuck you”
but I didn’t know that word then.
Then I started singing in the church choir ‘cause my
mate said come and sing in the choir. That was great.
We had a great choirmaster called Michael Bailey at
Bromley Parish Church. Obviously I had a natural
musical ear. My parents aren’t musical, although my
dad would occasionally sit at the piano and play. I
think twice in my life. My sisters could read music
but they didn’t have the feel. I was quite good at
singing and you’d get paid 10/6d a quarter. You’d get
2/6d for weddings I liked that.
And then started singing at Westminster Abbey and
Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
LW. Did you have to audition for that?
BJ. No, you would get recommended. As a good singer
you’d be invited to do it.
LW. So did you have to read music to do that?
BJ. Yea, and you learned from doing it. Every
Tuesdays and Thursdays was choir practice.
LW. That’s quite an unusual thing for a young boy to be
doing isn’t it? Presumably it wouldn’t have been
considered “cool” by the other kids?
BJ. But it was “cool” to go up to London by yourself.
I was going about London from around age ten. I think
I was quite ‘professional’ from an early age.
LW. So you were quite independent at an early age?
BJ. Once my mum called the police, because I was just
walking around all the back streets and looking at
things. And I didn’t come back. She was on her way to
the police station when I met her on my way home. I
was in my own little world… I still am.
LW. Well as long as it’s a nice little world.
BJ. No. People keep saying come out to play and I
don’t want to go out to play. They say “ go on, it’s
60 quid and only 400 miles round trip”.
LW. Other than the violin lessons, did you have any
other formal music training?
BJ. Yea, I had about six months of piano and when I
was about eleven or twelve I took up viola, because I
was assigned the third violins, but I used to get
really bored with classical music, (it made me sleepy
and still does) I woke up once on stage after the
orchestra had won a music prize.
I was really good at reading minims, so they thought
they would put me down for viola. That has quite a
nice tone. I did that for about six months. I think I
took Grade 3, but I didn’t pass. I had lost interest
by then ‘cause I’d picked up the guitar.
The best thing about the orchestra was the end of term
when you had to swap instruments. Then it sounded
LW. That swapping instruments, the sound of that, would
you say that was what planted the seeds of musical
anarchy in the kind of music you like to do now?
BJ. Yes, definitely. You could see the attraction.
The thing is, at that time, parents were frightened of
pop music. The rock and roll thing. It was a brilliant
time. You had all the sixties expansion and it was
very exciting. So, the guitar seemed the way forward.
LW. So when did you get your first guitar?
BJ. That’s a point. I don’t know. This guy taught
me three chords and “Get Back” –so that makes it
Spring of ‘69. I paid my sister 2/6d, to teach me
boogie-woogie on the piano. She drives a hard bargain.
In secondary school I would spend lunch hours just
improvising on the piano. In hindsight I realise
that’s quite a mad thing to do really. ‘Cause I just
didn’t like hanging out with other people.
Then when I was about fourteen, I got to know someone
who had a drum kit in the attic round the corner from
my school. So then I used to spend a lot of very long
lunch hours round there. But the guitar, that’s it. I
used to listen to blues ‘cause I could afford to buy
the records and then I was given a book about the
blues from the whole African American thing. And it
was like “wow”, that’s really exciting. And this is
much more interesting than the popular stuff. I never
liked the Rolling Stones. I always thought that was a
manufactured thing, although they were a band.
I didn’t like the Beatles. There was something stinky
about them. I liked the bombastic simplicity of the
But then in the early seventies I heard Gary Glitter
and thought, “Oh, this is the end of popular music”.
Then punk was the same thing. This is pointless. This
is competence swamping creativity. I came out of all
that Bromley Contingent; well I didn’t come out of it.
There were people I knew that used to sit round while
I’d be rehearsing when I was about fifteen, sixteen.
‘Cause we were on the road then with “Burlesque”. But
before that, when I was fourteen we’d be up and down
the motorway playing at air force bases and all that
in a cover’s band. That was a good experience
actually. The thing is, when I was fourteen, I knew I
was going to be a musician. That was my living. So I
didn’t really bother with school much after that. Then
it was working out a Led Zeppelin riff, the pentatonic
scale, then reverse that around and do it in different
LW. Did you like Led Zeppelin?
BJ. I quite liked them. I liked one album. I liked
Deep Purple for some reason. My best teenage mate,
Bill Broad, he liked Deep Purple but he also liked Cat
Then four years later, Bill became Billy Idol. The
first gig I ever promoted, I was aged fifteen or
something, was at the local village hall. I think we
were called “Grey Havens”. We put posters in the
school, and Billy Idol played ‘Froggy went a Courting”
twice on the acoustic guitar. I think that’s all he
knew. He was supporting, because he wasn’t good enough
to be in the band.
Just before this gig, 45 minutes before I was about to
make my debut, someone said a friend of yours says if
you don’t apologise for smoking dope in his house her
father is going to call the police. This friend was
called Valerie. She had ginger hair. I remember her
father had a jazz album by Joe Pass that I had been
listening to while smoking pot. So I had to make a
phone call and apologise before this gig. A couple of
years ago I was interviewed for National Sound
Archives and I told them this story. The very next day
I was playing in Bedford, and the stage manager told
me that there was someone who’d like to see you, an
old friend - and in walked Valerie! I hadn’t seen her
for thirty years!
LW. Are you still friends with Billy Idol?
BJ. At an adolescent age we were very close but then
he went to further education and I was on the road.
And he got in with Siouxie of Siouxie and the Banshees
and Steven Bailey aka Severin. I gave Billy “White
Night White Heat”, by Velvet Underground and said
“check this out”. He was into folk music like the
Incredible String Band. His mum phoned my mum and said
“William wants to play music, he won’t do his homework
for his O levels” And my mum said, “so let him do his
music”. Thank my mum for Billy Idol!
Actually Billy Idol’s mum was in the local paper a
couple of weeks ago, because the library check out set
off her heart pacemaker. She was very upset about it.
It was because she was Billy’s mum that it was in the
paper. When we were about eighteen Billy supported my
band when he was in Chelsea a couple of times, because
we were doing quite good business with the rock thing.
The last time we ever met, when we were about 18,
Billy said he was gonna make it in the pop world and I
said “well I’m gonna be a musician”.
Billy Idol (L) with Chelsea aged 21...
So we shook hands and that was it. It was brilliant.
LW. So how did you get interested in jazz?
BJ. We used to live in this very large derelict house
and we had lodgers. I’ve since found out that it was a
multi- racial household. The whole politically correct
thing works against people like me, because I have
become racially aware now, whereas at the time, they
were just people to me. And some of them are old dear
friends of the family. Pammy from Mauritius and her
sister, Mireille and daughter Angéle. There was Poli,
a Jewish refugee who got out of Berlin with her sewing
machine and her daughter. She’s dead now but her
daughter was with my mum when my mum died a couple of
years ago. It’s brilliant these long term close
friends. There all really part of the family. It
saddens me that we put people in boxes. The whole
thing about race relations, it’s jobs for people.
LW. Do you think that the government policy regarding
other races has added fuel to the fire of racial
discord? In that the indigenous people of this country
are feeling marginalized and that the refugees and other
races are getting special treatment?
BJ. We’ve reached the point in the Arts, where
someone like me, can’t apply for grants because I’m
not from a cultural minority. I’m also too old. In an
ideal world, I should be set up, and be solvent and be
earning from what I do. But of course that’s not the
case. You get people doing multi- racial music
projects just because they know they will get funding
for it. I think that is despicable.
For the Camden Jazz Festival, in 1991, I had to put a
band together to improvise to films. It was a
six-piece band and I only knew two guys who could read
well and improvise well on accordion, piano, double
bass, guitar and violins. And I had to use them. But
the organisers said, “ I wouldn’t mind if you could
have 73.3% ethnic representation, because that’s the
quota we try and work on”. So all I did was, the press
pack that I sent them was in Hungarian, Icelandic,
Spanish, French and some German. There’s your ethnic
quota. We didn’t get any press that year......
But on the other hand, in the global scheme of things,
particularly in America, it’s quite nice that in some
way the Arts can redress the balance.
Anyway, another of our lodgers, Bobby Graves,
(Pammy’s partner) was into jazz. He worked as a scene
shifter at the BBC. He was the one who turned me on to
Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa and he played me
East Broadway Rundown by Sonny Rollins… I didn’t like
saxophones up until then.
I realised, listening to Rollins taking his
saxophone apart and Elvin Jones just going completely
bananas… this was much more anarchic than the tight
assed Velvet Underground supposed “art” music. I was
interested in that, but I didn’t think ‘this is where
it’s at’. For all my liking of bombastic pop music, I
actually did have a very strong appreciation of
tonality and melody, from the church. I learned to
play the Max Roach drum solo on another Rollins album,
note for note.
Ken Taylor was a local mystic, cum Casanova type cum
drummer who taught me drumming and introduced me to
John Coltrane. It was a snowy Christmas Eve, about
half midnight and I was coming home from seeing a
girlfriend… and I stopped in to see Ken. So I heard
Afro-Blue with snowflakes. I always remember that.
We had a big cellar where the band would rehearse all
day. Years later, people would say “so you’re the one
who used to make all that noise, I could hear it on
the bus going past”. And when my parents went away, we
would turn it into a jazz club, jamming till 4 in the
LW. So what was your first professional engagement?
BJ. I was in the pit orchestra in me Mum’s puppet
theatre. Me mum had glove puppets. Because it was such
a big house we had a puppet theatre put in.
Me and my sister and a friend would be the orchestra
and mum gave puppet shows a couple of times a year for
kids. The music teacher next door, she taught piano,
would be like the M.D. And I remember how reluctantly
we would practise whatever bit it was that she wanted
us to rehearse. I remember saying on one occasion,
“could you hurry up please, because I want to play
football before it gets dark”. She blew her top. I
probably got a shilling for that.
LW. Who has been your main influence musically?
BJ. Speedway motorcycles. The sound of them. The
kinetic energy. But to be honest, in the jazz world,
I’m drawn to people like Mingus, Monk, Rahsaan Roland
Kirk is probably my favourite in terms of spirit and
intensity and musicality.
LW. It’s interesting that both you and Bobby Wellins
have mentioned Roland Kirk and yet my impression is that
he wasn’t taken seriously at the time.
BJ. He was treated as a circus act. But he was
fantastic. And when he played with Mingus, that was
the best combination. I think it’s deeply sad that
such a creative artist can only be fully appreciated
after they’ve died because the rush has stopped. Then
you can step back and analyse the whole cannon. I mean
I’m about thirty albums in, and I can’t live off them
‘cause they’re not being marketed properly or
LW. Do you market them yourself on your own label?
BJ. I have done, but I’m fed up with that now. You
need so much money to market them, and no one buys
them. The thing is, the music industry is controlled
by non-musicians. I really turned against radio,
‘cause I was doing my own shows as a presenter on
Resonance 104.4FM , and I was put off by broadcast
sound totally. The sound is too compressed.
LW. But you need the radio play to get heard and to sell
BJ. Yea, but when I do get the odd track on Radio 2
or something, I might sell half a dozen copies.
LW. Who mixes and produces all your recordings?
BJ. Tony Messenger does. He’s a very old associate.
He normally produces me but hasn’t done so for a few
years. ‘Cause I’ve stopped making records.
LW. Well you can’t sell them if you don’t make them.
BJ. Yea, but I can’t make them if I don’t sell them.
If you’re lucky, you sell 10%. If there’s seventy
people in the audience, you might sell seven records.
But, they want the tracks that you’ve done. Often, I
don’t want to do those tracks.
LW. How do the recordings compare in sound to the live
BJ. They’re different, because, you may have
different musicians in. performing is a totally
different medium to recording. The thing is, I’m a
very strong performer. On the records, I will use good
players. We did this record (Motorway At Night DCM
1988) where each track is twenty minutes at 160 beats
a minute, no retakes. Just like being on the motorway
at 70 m.p.h. So if you screw up, it’s on tape forever.
It’s collective polyphony - I always like back seat
drivers in my bands.
LW. But the thing is, you need to get what you do on the
stage, actually recorded. The excitement and the sound,
needs to be beautifully engineered to capture that, to
do justice to you. Have you always been an anarchist?
BJ. Probably, the first record I made was on piano.
You have to shift perspectives with music. I often get
a good musician to play an instrument that they’re not
familiar with. That’s what creates new dimensions as
far as I’m concerned.
LW. I See you’re earlier records were on Wood Wharf
Records. What is the significance of that?
BJ. I lived there for ten years, just down from the
Cutty Sark. I had one of my many physical and mental
collapses there. The council decided they were going
to develop around there. The alley in front of the
cottage was going to be a public road, and they were
talking about turning the barge yard into a Scratch
and Sniff barge yard. You know, a museum. Keep the
bloody thing going for Christ sake. It’s one of those
criminal things, that the river is under used.
LW. What inspired you to write songs like: “Pointless
Adornments”, Wheel Chair Dance Festival”, “One Leg is
Better than None” and “They Built a Ring Road in my
Garden”? Did they build a ring road in your garden?
BJ. Yea, round my dad’s garden. Although he set up an
action group to fight it. It’s the horrible thought of
receiving a compulsory purchase notice through your
door. “ Wheel Chair Dance Festival”, was inspired by a
photograph in a magazine of spastics dancing. Most of
the numbers are sociological observations.
LW Do you have a new album out now? And what is the
BJ. We are just recording it now. And it is probably
going to be called “When the Crowds Have Gone”. It’s a
very sad solo acoustic album. I borrowed Steve Watts
on a couple of tracks and there’s violin on a couple
LW. If you were to compare yourself to another musician,
who would that be?
BJ. I don’t like all that comparison stuff. Musicians
should be confident in what they do. Take Diana Krall
for instance. I went to see Serious Speakout, one of
the top U.K. music producers for left field stuff. He
actually said “fucking Diana Krall. I’m fed up with
the number of Diana Krall clone C.D.’s I get sent
every day.” The problem is, it’s taking away the joy
of instrumental music. It’s putting the marketplace
strongly on lyrical music and again, music, which has
been around a long long time. Therefore, new composers
are not gonna come through. Original acts don’t get a
look in at all. That contradicts the ethics of jazz,
which should be kinetic explosions.
I like Diana Krall, but the situation
is becoming that we have curators instead of creators.
You have to ask the question: Diana Krall, Doris Day -
what’s the difference?
LW So what you are saying is that what’s happening in
the jazz world is the same kind of thing that’s been
going on in the pop world for a long time in that the
record companies and promoters are looking for the tried
and tested formula? Looking for the next Bananarama.
BJ. I can’t tell you the hours of the day I worry
about the fact that I haven’t got a bosom and blond
© Lizzie Welch 2003