Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Geno Washington: Soul good

Geno Washington in action at the inaugural Vintage festival ©
Geno Washington in action at the inaugural Vintage festival © Geno Washington in action at the inaugural Vintage festival © Geno Washington in action at the inaugural Vintage festival © Geno Washington meets B&S' man in the (literally) field Pete Lewis ©bluesan

One of the most prominent and charismatic figureheads of the London Sixties soul boom, US-born vocalist Geno Washington - immortalised in 1980 through Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ chart-topping tribute single ‘Geno’ - this August forms part of a strong line-up of names scheduled to appear at Bedfordshire’s Rhythm Festival.

Born William Francis Washington in December 1943 in Evansville, Indiana, it was after he became stationed in England with the United States Airforce in the early-Sixties that Geno first developed a name for himself as a frequent stand-in at London rhythm & blues clubs - where his raucous vocal delivery quickly earned him favourable comparisons with chart-topping soul shouters of the day like Wilson Pickett and Don Covay.

However, it was not until Washington was asked by guitarist Pete Gage in 1965 to front a new group he was forming that bona fide stardom arrived. With the group - which, following Geno’s joining, would become Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band - going on to release (through the Piccadilly label) two of the biggest-selling British albums of the Sixties, both of which were live recordings. Indeed, with the band’s debut LP - 1966’s “Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt… Live!” peaking at a prestigious Number Two, its impressive 38-week run on the UK chart not only coincided with a run of moderately-successful singles (including the Top 40 hits "Water” and “Michael (The Lover)”) but also decisively paved the way for the outfit’s second British Top 10 album, 1967’s “Hipster Flipsters, Finger Poppin’ Daddies”.

Nevertheless, despite the strong and neo-fanatical live following the group had cultivated with their energetic live performances (which made them particular favourites with the mod scene of the day), autumn 1969 unexpectedly found The Ram Jam Band splitting up and going their separate ways. With Geno - after continuing as a solo artist for a while - returning to The States in the early-Seventies to study hypnosis and meditation before later in the decade releasing three albums for the DJM label - 1976’s “Geno’s Back” and “Live”, plus 1979’s “That’s Why Hollywood Loves Me”.

Meanwhile, encouraged to make a comeback in 1980 due to rekindled interest in him following the aforementioned Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Number One “Geno”, by 1981 Washington (having now completed his degree in hypnotism) had returned to the UK and was once again touring extensively. Since which time he has remained regularly active onstage (many of his shows combining demonstrations of hypnotism in the first-half with vintage soul music in the second) while sporadically releasing new material on various independent labels via such albums as “Put Out The Cat” (1981), “Live Sideways” (1986); “Take That Job And Stuff It” (1987); and “Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life” (recorded with The Purple Aces and released in 1998).

… Which in turn pretty much brings us up-to-date. As an extrovert and instantly-likeable Geno (whose parallel acting career includes the Nick Berry-starring 1996 film “Paparazzo” and the John Henshaw and Denise Welch-featuring 2009 movie “A Bit Of Tom Jones”) holding court with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis backstage at a summer festival in the West Sussex countryside to discuss his early years and the background to his legendary status in UK soul music history.

PETE: You and UK live audiences have had an ongoing love-affair now for close on five decades. Why do you think that is?

GENO: “While I don’t know the EXACT reason, in my opinion I think it’s because when I come out onstage I’m for REAL! It’s like the audiences know from my actions and the energy that me and The Ram Jam Band put out that we are representing how we FEEL. You know, we don’t just stand there and play music and IGNORE the audience. Instead we go out and try to ENTERTAIN them - rain, snow, sleet, whatever... And it’s that aspect of entertaining the audience that, as far as I’m concerned, has become a lost art with many groups TODAY, who basically just go out because they have the hit records and the PUBLICITY. Which is why, when they stop having hit records, nobody wants to KNOW. Because going out there and just leaving the audience on their own is no GOOD! You must go out there and THRILL your audience, even if it’s only three PEOPLE! Because if you do, then those three people will sure enough pass the word ALONG!”

PETE: Can you fill me in on your early background?

GENO: “I actually come from a bootlegging family in Evansville in the Southern part of Indiana. Basically they was into selling illegal alcohol on the weekends. And I actually spent the early part of my life growing up in an ORPHANGE, because my mother and father was in JAIL. Basically what had happened was - this was during the segregation times - they cut up some white people in a bar because these people had jumped on them after they’d gone in and asked for a whole chicken and a half-pint of dark-eye whisky!… So yeah, they were in jail for like five years while my mother’s mother was making a lot of money running the bootlegging joint, particularly from the GI’s returning from World War II…. And then I guess musically, up till the time I was maybe 15 years old all I heard every day ALL day was the BLUES!”

PETE: So how did you then end up moving to the UK?

GENO: “When I graduated from High School in 1961, the Vietnam War was on. And so, because I didn’t wanna go to Vietnam, I decided to join the American Air Force to be in the rear with the GEAR! And shortly after that, to everyone’s surprise I ended up getting posted to a luxury assignment in ENGLAND!”

PETE: And how did that in turn lead to you being interested in becoming a singer?

GENO: “When I got over here, because I figured I’d never get a chance to come back to England again in my lifetime, I thought I might as well start mixing with the LOCALS. So I started going to the ballrooms, seeing groups perform... And then one night, Alvin Stardust - who was called Shane Fenton back then - came up onstage with his group. And, once I saw the girls screaming and shouting and throwing their knickers on the stage, a little voice spoke to me in my ear and said ‘Geno, you know, I think this is a job for YOU!’! You know, it really was almost like a spiritual experience. So, though in those days I was basically an athlete, I swear to God it was at that very moment that I suddenly became interested in SINGING!”

PETE: So how did you then end up a regular stand-in on the mid-Sixties London rhythm & blues scene?

GENO: “Well, I went straight up to speak to Shane and said ‘Do you get PAID for this?’ - ‘cause I’d never talked to an English group before and I wanted to know was there any MONEY involved. So, though for about 30 seconds he thought I was some kind of stoned idiot, he eventually realised I really didn’t KNOW! So he was like ‘Yeah, of COURSE I get paid for this - I travel all over ENGLAND doing this!’. So then, when my response was ‘So how can I get a piece of this action?’, he said’ Go down to The FLAMINGO Club. Because there’s guys down there like Zoot Money, Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe - who all like American black singers’… So, thinking to myself ‘Well, I’m black as an ace of SPADES - I could GET some of that!’, I went down there and told them all these lies like my sister was in Martha & The Vandellas, my auntie was Dinah Washington... And eventually they let me get up and SING with them - and we ended up getting standing OVATIONS! So from then on, any time I wanted to sing they’d LET me... Then from there I started going to ANOTHER club in London called The Bluesville, where I’d jump up and sing with The ANIMALS. Plus, with me being based in RAF Bentwaters in Woodbridge, whenever people like Long John Baldry or Rod Stewart came to Ipswich, I’d sing with THEM… So yeah, all those people who became major stars - Eric Clapton, Georgie Fame, Rod Stewart - were basically the guys I came UP with back then.”

PETE: How did that in turn lead to you becoming, in 1965, the iconic lead-singer of The Ram Jam Band?

GENO: “It was actually a guy named Pete Gage, who also was married to Elkie Brooks, who formed The Ram Jam Band. Basically, because there was a group called Ronnie Jones & The Night-Timers who was causing a storm at the time because people had never seen nothing like it before, Pete went to check them out and was like ’Well I need to get me a black American SINGER!’. So he asked me to do an audition for him; I came up to London, did the audition - and then he fixed up a little quickie gig in Wardour Street to check out what I could do ONSTAGE. Then once we’d done that, I was like ‘I’m getting outta The Air Force in three weeks. I gotta go home and get de-mobbed and then I’m coming BACK. So if you guys want me, I’d like to be your SINGER. And if you DON’T want me or don’t BELIEVE me, I’m still coming back ANYWAY!’!... So from that I ended up coming back and joining The Ram Jam Band - and we straightaway managed to find a FORMULA together, where Pete did the arrangements of the music and I did all the movements and designed all the OUTFITS. Which in the end worked out really GOOD. Because, though at first we had no gig, no money and no manager, we eventually ended up finding the guy who managed Georgie Fame and Zoot Money… He then invested some money into us; we paid him back in like six months - and in a year-and-a-half we had the Number Two album in ENGLAND!... And that album went on to stay in The Top Five for 38 WEEKS!”

PETE: So how do you recall being a prominent fixture of the Sixties London music scene at a time when the city was pretty much the centre of the world in terms of music and fashion?

GENO: “Oh, it was like living in “Alice In Wonderland”! Because suddenly everybody who was somebody wanted to be in LONDON! People around the world were copying English fashion, English music... And what for me was especially great was when the Stax/Atlantic artists came over - Otis Redding, Arthur Conley, Wilson Pickett. Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave - they were all shocked at how well KNOWN they were here! And the reason FOR that was because I’d already - two years earlier - been telling everybody who the original singers were of many of the songs I was singing, while at the same time pointing out that I was singing them DIFFERENTLY! And we actually ended up having bigger hits the THEY did album-wise! Because, though they had big hit singles, none of those artists - except Otis - ever had an ALBUM that went into the UK chart. Whereas mine DID!”

PETE: Finally, can you briefly fill me in on your activities between your Sixties heyday and now?

GENO: “Well, I had to eventually take some time out from all of the singing and performing to clear my head. So I basically went home to The States for a time to study my spirituality, to where I eventually ended up becoming one of England’s top stage hypnotists. Plus I’ve also since become a motivational life-coach… Then in terms of music, since my return to England in the Eighties I’ve basically just kept on PLAYING. Like more recently I’ve done nationwide tours with people like Pauline Black, Mr. “Knock On Wood” Eddie Floyd, P.P. Arnold, Jimmy James... Plus we’ve also now decided to go back to 1965 with a DVD release, where you can really see the action and performance of the band at its peak - which is something a lot of people have been telling me I SHOULD do. Then on top of that, I’m also back to being CREATIVE again, in terms of doing some new music… So yeah, the future is looking pretty BRIGHT right now!”

Geno performs at Rhythm Festival, Old Warden Park, Bedfordshire, which runs from August 24 to 26 (

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