Soho and the 2 i’s coffee bar

“Soho is a place where all the things they say happen, do” – Colin Macinnes

The 2 i's Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street

The 2 i’s Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street

In 1953 the Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida opened the Moka coffee bar at 29 Frith Street in Soho. The cafĂ© provided London with its first Gaggia expresso coffee machine and some have argued that the opening of this West End coffee bar was the early morning double-espresso that London needed to kick-start its way out of the grey post-war depression – ready to set itself up to become the world’s trendiest city in only a decade’s time.

Other coffee bars soon sprung up around Soho, often providing live music, and these included the Top Ten in Berwick Street and the Heaven and Hell bar in Old Compton Street. The most famous of all, however, and next door to the Heaven and Hell, was the 2 i’s at number 59.

Almost over night young people, who now for the first time were starting to be known as ‘teen-agers’ had somewhere to go they could call their own. The coffee shops were unlicensed and there was nothing to stop teenagers coming to Soho to listen to music, live, or on the jukebox. If you were young, Soho was suddenly the place to be.

Gina Lollobrigida in 1953

Gina Lollobrigida in 1953

The Moka coffee bar in 1953, seemingly offering a free electric shave

The Moka coffee bar in 1953, seemingly offering a free electric shave

Skiffle band playing on an old bomb site in Soho 1956

Skiffle band playing on an old bomb site in Soho 1956

'teen-agers' in Soho 1956

‘teen-agers’ in Soho 1956

Soho Square 1956

Soho Square 1956

Lonnie Donegan September 1956

Lonnie Donegan September 1956

The Two i’s was bought in 1955 by an Australia wrestler called Paul Lincoln (Dr Death when in the ring – and one of the sport’s first masked wrestlers,paul-lincoln-as-dr-death2cleverly enabling him to fight twice on the same bill, and thus doubling his fee). The name of the bar came from the two brothers called Irani he had bought it from.

The 2 i’s wasn’t a particularly busy place initially and it was quickly losing money, but this all changed when Lincoln started to put on skiffle groups that were becoming popular with teenagers, especially after Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line had become a hit. Skiffle was suited totally to the new coffee shops due to the minimal, cheap and un-amplified instruments the bands used and thus able to fit into the tiniest, sweatiest cellar.

When a skiffle group called The Vipers came to play one night at the 2 i’s, a friend of theirs called Tommy Hicks helped them out with some vocals and so impressed a watching record producer from Decca that it was Hicks who was signed to his label. Hicks was quickly taken on and managed by a former shopkeeper called Larry Parnes, who persuaded him to change his name to Tommy Steele. The name stuck and a hit single called ‘Rock with the Caveman’ soon followed and literally within days Tommy Steele became Britain’s first genuine teenage pop idol.
Tommy Steele 25th February 1957

Tommy Steele 25th February 1957

Tommy Steele at the Bread Basker 1957

Tommy Steele at the Bread Basker 1957

An acned Tommy Steele performing in Soho 1957

Tommy Steele performing in Soho 1957. How young he was is written all over his face.

Steele’s overnight success made the basement of the 2 I’s coffee shop the most famous music venue in the country. It was only a small place though, and like the other Soho venues was usually very hot and sweaty, with a small 18 inch stage at one end, one microphone, and some speakers up on the wall.

Clutching their guitars, teenagers, from all over the country, started coming to the 2 I’s, or even Soho in general, to try and find fame and fortune. Cliff Richard and the Shadows (initially the Drifters) all met by being regulars at the cafe. Bruce Welch of the Shadows once said:

“The Two I’s was the place to be discovered. If it was good enough for Tommy Steele it was good enough for us.”

Larry Parnes, considering himself an ‘impresario’ and known to many as ‘Mr Parnes, Shillings and Pence’, started to manage other singers and after the success of Steele insisted on creating cartoonish pseudonyms, thus Reg Smith became Marty Wilde, Ronald Wycherley became Billy Fury and Clive Powell became Georgie Fame. Joe Brown, however rejected his Parnes’ name of Elmer Twitch (not surprisingly) and solely, it seems, had a music career with the name with which he was born.

Billy Fury and Larry Parnes

Billy Fury and Larry Parnes

Joe Brown

Joe Brown

Mr Parnes Shillings and Pence

Mr Parnes Shillings and Pence

Georgie Fame

Clive Powell aka Georgie Fame

marty-and-kim-wilde-1962

Reg Smith aka Marty Wilde and a young Kim Wilde

Roy Taylor aka Vince Eager

Roy Taylor aka Vince Eager

Larry Parnes wasn’t known as the ‘beat svengali’ for nothing, and his relationship with his proteges was ‘fatherly’ at the very least. Vince Eager at one point was wondering why he hadn’t received any record royalties. “You’re not entitled to any,” Larry Parnes told him. “But it says in my contract that I am,” Eager protested. “It also says I have power of attorney over you, and I’ve decided you’re not getting any,” Parnes replied.

Parnes’ power in the music business swiftly declined with the rise of the Beatles (he rejected them as a backing group for Billy Fury at one point) and, always happier with family entertainment, he went on to produce theatre shows. However the mid to late fifties was an incredibly exciting and creative time for British music and the attraction of rock ‘n’ roll brought talented (and, to be fair, not so talented) teenagers from all over the country to try their hand at a new musical fashion.

It seemed, at last, that anyone from any backgrould could make it. Only Punk, perhaps, echoed the musical ‘can do’ atmosphere of this period, just two decades later.

Frith Street in 1956, known as Froth Street in the heyday of the coffee bars

Frith Street in 1956, known as Froth Street in the heyday of the coffee bars

Leon Bell and the Bell Cats and some hand-jiving kittens

Leon Bell and the Bell Cats and some hand-jiving kittens

Doing what teenagers do best, hanging around in Soho

Doing what teenagers do best, hanging around. In Soho

The skiffle group City Ramblers in 1955

The skiffle group City Ramblers in 1955

Bill Kent entertaining the ladies at the 2 I's coffee bar

Bill Kent entertaining the ladies at the 2 I’s coffee bar

It’s now over fifty years since the heyday of the 2 I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street. A lot of the Soho cafes, like everywhere else, are either closing down or becoming part of the ubiquitous Starbucks chain. Starbucks, of course, branched out last year and started their own record label featuring cutting edge artists such as Carly Simon and James Taylor.

The ubiquitous coffee chain also signed Paul McCartney, who fifty years ago was inspired by the skiffle boom created by the Soho Coffee shops to join John Lennon’s skiffle band The Quarrymen. And we all know what happened to them.

The Quarrymen in 1958

The Quarrymen in 1958

A long way from the Moka coffee bar

A long way from the Moka coffee bar and Gina Lollobrigida

If you’ve only heard the novelty songs of Donegan, you will be surprised by his version of Frankie and Johnny – his voice, by the end of the song, ends up almost going insane. It was one of John Peel’s all time favourite songs I think. I have also included the Peter Sellers sketch which includes ,what is apparently, an extremely accurate impression of Larry Parnes. It’s also very funny and written by Denis Norden and Frank Muir.
Anybody know what happened to the skiffle guitarist and ladies man Bill Kent?
The 2i's today, November '09

The 2i’s today, November ’09


Lonnie Donegan – Frankie And Johnny
Lonnie Donegan – Putting On The Style
The Quarrymen – That’ll Be The Day
Peter Sellers – So Little Time
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