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 café 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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69 Responses to “Soho and the 2 i’s coffee bar”

  1. David Austen says:

    Great blog and comments. My membership card for the 2is was numbered 007. Also great times at Ken Collyers club.
    Lived in Camberwell at the time and also remember Rock around the Clock being shown at the Troc Elephant & Castle, when the police put the dogs into the cinema.

  2. Jo says:

    Hi

    Thanks

  3. Craig says:

    My mum was one of the teenagers who sang at the 2i’s several times. She was with a band called The Emeralds in the early 60′s. her name was Val Rogers, but they called her Kathy. Good times I hear :-)

  4. Ray Palmer says:

    I was in a South Wales band called The Midnighters in the very early 1960s. We travelled to London to play at the 2is. The basement was about as big as the lounge in my house where I’m writing this now! How we ever fitted on that tiny stage I can’t imagine – nor where we managed to park the van! It was hot, sweaty, but for us four kids very exciting, and a fab memory I still have fifty years later!

  5. Rob says:

    Does anyone know where on Berwick St the Top Ten Club was? I gather it was near the D’Arblay St crossroads but under which shop?

  6. Ray says:

    The Top Ten was under the Indian restaurant just around the corner from D’arbly street. I played there in 1960 with a band called Black Rythem.

  7. Ben says:

    Great blog, many thanks.

  8. Amy says:

    Hello,
    I’d be really interested in using some of the images from your blog, could you possibly get in touch?
    Thanks
    Amy

  9. Steve Eagles says:

    Great blog! so many memories for me, one night down the 2i’s I fainted in the crush & was carried up to the kitchen some guys started to mug me on the floor & then some of my band members came in & rescued me. It was such a great place to be meat many fiends in the industry, Joe Meek especially.

    This was all pre “SE” though lol.

  10. Pete Wilson says:

    I played guitar at the two I´s for several months beginning of the 60´s with an amateur group and knew Tom Littlewood well. An amazing experience then and a super memory now.

  11. What memories! The ‘scratch’ bands in the basement, no health and safety issues back then!
    My ‘time’ was 1962 + before my band set out for The Reeperbahn, along with many others. We were known (in the Midlands) as Carl Fenn & the Mysteries but – with Jim Sullivan’s blessing (honest Brian!) The KrewKats, know largely in Europe more than England where the Brians and Tony Belcher/ Jim were better known.
    Some of the names I associate with the bar that Tom Littlewood ran are:- Little Roy (drums), Rikki Barnes (tenor sax), Jackie Lynton (vocals) Ian Hines (keyboards) Albert Lee (guitar – need I add that!) and many others. Let’s see who can add to the list?
    Happy days muzos . . . .

  12. [...] 3. Soho in the 1950s always sounds fairly thrilling. Actually, Soho anytime pre-1990s sounds brill. You can relive a bit of mid-century London life TOMORROW and on Sunday 18 August with Back in the Day Walks, who will guide you around ‘jazz clubs, coffee bars and drinking dens’ for the princely sum of £10. Find out more here. [Pic: Nickel in the Machine] [...]

  13. Peter Wicks says:

    This 76 year old remembers those days fondly and spent many a night in this club

  14. Clinton Bell says:

    Hello everyone.
    My parents used to go to The Flamingo and The 2 Is just before I was born, so they’re a part of my family history.
    I’m now involved in making a film about the Two Puddings in Stratford, which was also big at that time. I’m wondering if any of you also went there and, if so, do you have any memories you’d like to share?

  15. JOHN KEMP says:

    My late father Peter Kemp played here in I believe a resident band for quite some time, I only have one photo of them backing Paul Gadd.
    Does the current bar have any photos etc displayed of that time
    I believe at the time of Lord Such?

  16. Joe Stead says:

    Wonderful photographs reminding me of my youth. Spent most of my time in the Skiffle Centre in Greek Street, but wandered in and out of the Two I’s as well. I suppose my own career, which really started in 1965, was greatly influenced by the clubs, pubs, and coffee bars of the 1950′s.

  17. Denis Hoare says:

    A Vietnamese restaurant called The House Of Ho now incorporates 59 Old Compton St. Restoration works have uncovered wall illustrations on the rh side as you walk in, on the ground floor. This wall is being restored and preserved and anyone with photo’s could help the restoration process. The wall is red and the illustrations are of instruments and a person playing guitar. I can supply a photo of what’s left on request.

  18. Michele Frasca says:

    Hi, great article! My mum worked at the 2 i’s, she’s the one behind the bar in your photo with Bill Kent. Her name is Tosca, but she was known by her middle name, Maria, at the 2 i’s.

  19. Philomena Trevor-Hunt says:

    When I look back on my teenage years I had the best of it and it was all great fun and it is lovely to see so many photos of the old I’s turning up. I treasure the ones I have most of them from Rick Richard bless his soul. FB has been a great adventure for me I have found a lot of old pals from those days BUT I am looking for Danni Kaplan and was wondering if anyone knows where she is. She was engaged at one time to Sammy Samwell would love to reconnect with her – I know she married and went to Canada. ME?? I now live in Australia. Love this blog. .

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