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

  1. Tosh says:

    Great blog! We’re interested in the same things (well, what i see on your blog). Keep up the great work!

    Ciao,
    Tosh
    TamTam Books

  2. Interface says:

    I really enjoy reading your posts. The history and photos are great. Thanks for all the effort.

  3. ally. says:

    thanks ever so for all this – i’m jealous as hell.
    x

  4. Will Kane says:

    Hot dang, this is a great blog, how have I missed this?!!

    Keep it up!

    -WK

  5. ian gordon says:

    I’ve come to love the British rock ‘n’ rollers, and think they get a bad press. Certainly they new nothing about the Blues, nor ever seen a white gospel revivalist meeting. Neither did they drive trucks around Memphis, and hang out at drive in movies. They didn’t get direct contact with the “black” roots of the music, and probably wouldn’t have liked it much if they did. Their approach was simple: Copy Elvis. And to them that meant one thing and one thing only: Shiny stage suits and lots of hip action.

    Was Buddy Holly a great songwriter? Yes. Was Elvis the greatest performer ever? Yes. But did they bite the end off of Heinz’s nose? No. It took Jess Conrad to do that. The British guys were so decadent and outrageous that I really think the roots of Rock comes more from the show bizz traditions of “spectacle” they espoused, than it does the Americans.

    (Big “up” for Billy Fury and Joe Brown though. They were the real deal, and had it all).

    Thanks for posting the 2 I’s pictures. (Tommy Steele had acne?) and Dr Death looks like he’s walked straight from the set of “Kid For Two Farthings”.

    Any more 2 I’s type stuff would be great to see.

  6. jonny quest says:

    Fantastic blog ! I can small London from the pictures !

  7. yet another fantastic post. Would it be ok add you to themusicologist?

  8. Troy McClure says:

    Cheers for a great site!

    Tune in to my rock ‘n roll and other mid-century swag on wvew.org, Wed. nites @ 8 PM, Eastern Standard Time. “Peel Slowly & See”…

  9. Jimmy Brown says:

    Gee it brings back so many great memories of working in london in the 60s, I

  10. Jimmy Brown says:

    It brings back great memories of working in the west end of London in the 60s, I met lots of pop-stars coming in for a meal in the Cumberland Hotel, Dusty, Billy, Marty, Joe, etc. I wish I could go back, ah well they were great days and the people were lovely, see ya Jimmy

  11. BARRY MEISEL says:

    Yes the 2is brings back very good memories from the 1950s. I had my first cup of espresso coffee which was 9d.
    Also had one of my first dates was there and listened to Cliff Richard singing Living Doll and Frankie Vaughan Green Door. at about 2am we got on to my vespa and drove home.

    Yes they were good days and good times at the the 2 Is

    Thanks for the memories

  12. James Walsh says:

    Great blog. I remember all those times and watching Tommy Steele’s first picture in the local cinema. We all wanted to look like Marty Wilde in those days as I remember. I worked in the Savoy Hotel in the sixties so I found the blog featuring the Savoy very interesting. Nice work. I visit quite often and I am always amazed at the material in here. Those were the days!

  13. Neil says:

    You say “Tommy Steele became Britain’s first genuine teenage pop idol” I completely disagree with your classification of Tommy. Substitute “artificial” or “pretend” for “genuine”. He might have been a good cockney music hall act and light entertainer in the opinion of some but he had no feel whatsoever for rock n roll and never made a rock n roll record.
    I first got into rock n roll in 1953 with Bill Haley’s “Shake Rattle n Roll”. I listened to AFN and dug Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis as well. I had been listening to all the best in r n r before Tommy came along.
    In 1956(?) I read one day in the Daily Mirror that the 1st British r n r singer would be on TV that night so I made sure to watch that program. On came Tommy to sing “Rock with the Caveman.” And I knew from the 1st two bars that it was going to be rubbish and definitely was not rock n roll. I listened , in pain, to the song, then left the room in disgust.
    To rockers at that time Tommy was a bad joke. Adults at that time had no idea what r n r was. To them Tommy seemed to be r n r because he looked the part but to teenagers he just didn’t have what it took. Adult promoters wanted there to be a British rocker so’s they could cash in on it and they decided Tommy was it but they were wrong. He soon degenerated to be a cockney song n dance man in movies like “Half a Sixpence” where he belonged.
    The title belongs to Cliff Richard who was a rocker, had the looks and the song “Move It” is still one of the greatest rock songs of all time. When I heard the 1st 2 bars of “Move it” I thought “Oh thank God! Finally we have a British rocker.”
    In recent bio shows on BBC both Cliff and Marty Wilde said as I have said. They never rated Tommy Steele as a rocker. Listen to Rock with the Caveman today. To painful to believe. Listen to Move It. Still one of the all time greats.

  14. Stephen Quay says:

    Your picture of The City Ramblers Skiffle Group dated 1955 shows Shirley Bland on washboard. I was only a child then but I met Shirley several times in the fifties. My uncle was the late Russell Quaye and my auntie is Hylda Syms. I still remember their Skiffle parties with visiting celebrities, and visiting their skiffle club “The Cellar” in Greek Street in Soho. Apart from the photo you haven’t mentioned them at all which is strange considering their big impact at the time.

  15. josh sutton says:

    To Stephen Quay – my dad played washboard in the City Ramblers before Shirley. Have you got any old photos (I have access to a few). Get in touch!

  16. Brian Farmer says:

    To Stephen Quay. Russell was my wife’s father. Please contact me on brianpfarmer@yahoo.co.uk for more info

  17. Alan says:

    my girlfriend claims she worked at the mediterrian club in the late 50s, she thinks it was in Wardour St, does anyone have any information about the club ?

  18. Capitalsoul says:

    Great body of work have have really enjoyed strolling along this site. Although it was years later I would bunk of school in the late seventies and dose about in Soho. Thing was many places where still there and then I started collecting records and found myself in some great little shops in some great little alley ways.

  19. jeannie cave says:

    A picture of the young Georgie Fame. Nice. I think we used to go to Whiskey AGogo in Wardour Street to do “partnerless” dance to his band. He was my favourite. We danced to records at The Inferno near Welling Station aswell and saw International live bands at The Black Prince public house in Bexley. Chislehurst Caves was also a great venue for progressive rock. My teens were chock full of music and dancing practically every night.

  20. Alan Fitter says:

    I think the photograph of Frith Street that mentions “Froth Street” is in fact the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street – I remember Gamba being there – it’s now a bookshop

  21. raye du-val says:

    I won world marathon three times two were at Top Ten Club SOHO 50s

    and 60s.I also taught the late Tony Meehan, drummer with the Shadows.

    I was born in Soho of French parents.More info go to Youtube,

    Raye Du-val drums, & Raye Du-val NATIONAL ARCHIVES. R D.

  22. Jeannette Henderson says:

    Hi

    This is a fantastic blog.

    I wonder if anybody can help me – I’m trying to find out if there was a resident singer at the ‘Top Ten’ in early 1960 who’s first name was Colin? No idea of the surname.

    thanks

    Jeannette

  23. Russell Rose says:

    To Stephen Quay and Brian Falmer: my father was a very close friend of Russell’s and lived with him for a while. In fact, I’m named after him. Also, I own a number of original paintings by Russell, mostly Jazz influenced but not all. If you want to make contact I’m on Russellwrose@gmail.com

    Russ x

  24. Colin Crawley (Melander) says:

    Reply to Jeanette Henderson above:

    Hi Jeanette – my name is Colin and was singing at the ‘Top Ten’ in early 1960 but joined a band formed by Ian Hines and went to Hamburg in June 1960 with Tony Sheridan. We were the first British band in Hamburg and probably the first in Germany. I don’t know if I was the only Colin singing in the Top Ten in 1960 though!… regards…Colin

  25. Steph says:

    Hi All – What a great blog. Full of late fifties memories. Totally agree with Neil. Tommy Steel wasn’t rated at all – in fact it took some doing, getting us lot off American music. Cliff was the first…and the Shadows. Once I turned up at the 2is, heard the “awful” live music coming up, and went to Heaven and Hell instead. Does anyone remember the Cafe des Artistes? Where was it? It was dark, and smelt a bit damp, but it was the place to meet up with the lads – on one occasion, the London Welsh Rugby team, I seem to remember (no, not all of them!)

  26. RAYE DU-VAL. says:

    I backed COLIN HICKS,(TOMMY STEELES brother.) at the TOP TEN CLUB,
    Soho.Could this be the Colin, Jeanette meant? Does anyone remember
    a coffee ACT1 ACT1 opposite the 2i’s coffeebar Old Compton st Soho?
    It’s been quoted as the place where CLIFF RICHARD was discovered.

    Raye.

  27. RAYE DU-VAL says:

    Jeanette the Colin you may thinking of could be Tommy Steeles
    brother,whom i backed at the TopTen his name was Colin Hicks.Does
    anyone remember a theatre bar Act1 Scene2 opposite the 2i’s coffeebar?
    It,s been quoted that Cliff Richard was discovered there.

  28. RAYE DU-VAL says:

    Jeanette,the Colin you may be thinking could be Colin Hicks,Tommy
    Steele brother

  29. RAYE DU-VAL says:

    Does one remember Act 1 Scene 1 opposite the 2i’s? It’s been quoted
    That Cliff Richards was discovered there.

  30. RAYE DU-VAL says:

    Ialso played drums for Paul Raven at the 2′is as one knows he became
    Gary Glitter.

  31. Dave Pgs says:

    I agree with everything Neil said re. Tommy Steele. He was too fluffy to be a rock and roller. Cliff had the attitude at that time

  32. Hello. I lay a claim to being the first to sing at the Top Ten Club, Berwick Street, Soho, in 1958. At that time I was billed as Tee Kellie.

    The club had recently opened and was owned by Mike Prince, a professional wrestler, real name Milo Pasterlopolous (spel?), who also owned the “CoffeePot” opposite.

    I had formerly been in a rock group in Brighton and went to London to meet drummer Raye Du-Val who had played with the group in Brighton.

    It was the venue for Raye’s first drum marathon of 30 hours, 30 minutes and 15 seconds in 1959.

    I met many of the celebrities that visited the club such as Hank Marvin who regularly dropped in and jazzmen that sat in with Raye. I also sang occasionally at the 2 Is.

    It was over 50 years ago, much memorabilia has been lost but there are some pics at, http://www.flickr.com/photos/20539253@N00/sets/72157626310109745/

    Thanks for this site as it has brought back many memories.

    Trevor Downer.

  33. Peter says:

    You had to be a member to get into the 2 I’s basement club. However,if the back of your card had not been already signed by “Tammy” it was not considered authentic and you still did not get in. It sure was a confined spacel but I still managed to execute the whirling form of Bohemian – or trad style -dancing without hitting anyone. That, a Coke and a Gauloise. Happy Days.

  34. philip rikje pearson says:

    Wow, my sons rock band Hornet just played the 12 bar club Denmark street August 2011. I remember some one saying years ago my late uncle Russell Quaye had a club in soho. So with the help of Google, bingo I discover it was a skiffal club” The Cellar club” Creek Street and checking the postings I discover a cousin and a husband of a cousin unknown to each other or me have put up postings WOW

  35. Johnny (Chester)Dowling says:

    Hello 2 i`s cats,
    We first went to the 2`i s in `61. As usual, us as thirteen year-olds would ‘play the hop’ from school and hang about Soho all day. The following year found me and my friends on various occasions, downstairs listening to white folk performing, altho` I didn`t realise at the time.. R ‘n’ B.
    I never recall having to be a member or having to sign anything to go downstairs.
    My memories are vivid barring one point – and the reason for my question will become clear in a moment…
    As one would walk through the coffee bar to the rear… were there or not.. three doors facing us? The one on the left to the office then two more at the top of the stairs.. ladies and gents toilets?
    The reason I`m asking is because I`m in the process of building a model of the coffee bar.
    Your help would be appreciated – thank you, Chester

  36. Anne says:

    Happy days! It was such a great time in my life, the 2 Is was great as was the Top Ten Club, The Freight Train and many others. Well remember Vince Eager, Tony Sheridan, Liquoice Locking, Brian Bennett, Vince Taylor, Rick Richards, and many many more. So glad I didn’t miss it all!

  37. Alison Wing says:

    Does anyone remember errol hollis and the velvets playing at the 2i’s around 1957? Would love to hear more about them or see some old pics of them playing if possible

    Your help would be appreciated.

    Thank you

    Alison

  38. Dave Blanche says:

    Great site, brought back memories – I played bass guitar in a band that played for a few weeks at the Top Ten Club in 1960. Those were the days!

  39. Judy Cannon says:

    Reply to Raye Du-Val re ‘Act 1 Scene 1′ coffee house/restaurant in Old Compton Street, I remember it well, I worked there as a waitress in 1960/61. It was a good place to work, all the girls from the Raymond Revue show used to come in, and actors and actresses from the nearby theatres used to be regular customers, I remember Cliff Richards came in, and Vince Eager, and lots of other well known show biz people.
    Soho was so much better fun then. We used to go to the Amalfi for coffee or pizza.

  40. TONY Guyver says:

    Hi I knew Russell, Hilda, Shirley and Jim etc. when I used to play with the Spiders Skiffle group. Shirley helped me to play washboard. Those were good days. Who were the US couple that came one night, Darrol Adams? They were Texan and one of them’s stetsons was behind the frieze above the stage, I also remember when the guy on violin popped up in the audience and started to play, he of course was invited to join in on stage.

  41. TONY Guyver says:

    Hi, again I remember Hilda bringing her baby to the skiffle cellar a couple of days after giving birth, who was the child?this is about 1956-58 I think.

  42. johnny martin says:

    the picture of tommy steele, with the HAND JIVE GIRL’S was at the CAT’S WHISKER COFFE BAR. the r/r group were THE BELL CAT’S i am the DRUMMER with leon and jerry. bring’s back a lot of great memories. WHERE DID IT ALL GO

  43. Frank mayerling says:

    Love your blogs, I was born in denmark street couple of doors up from tin pan alley,1954,,reading your stuff brings back a lot of my childhood,,I worked in the golden goose,and in las vegas arcade in wardour street, i used to drink in the old french house with a well known face Frankie blake, he used to be a wrestling ref with dale martin. its all changed now, when i go home to see my old mum. i always feel a little down… keep up the good work..all the best

  44. Mark says:

    Alison, I am trying to trace some history on Errol Holis too and would love to hear from anyone who recalls them ?

  45. Rick Starling says:

    My band The Lee Jordan 5 played at The 2i’s c1962. Another band was on from Wales, I think. Called The Solid 7. I think! Nice Scotty Moore style lead guitarist. Tom Littlewood was the manager then. He gave us quite a few gigs around London. We also auditioned at The Flamingo on a Sunday afternoon. After we played a full rhythm and blues band played. We just stood there mouths open listening. It was Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames! Fantastic! Believe they’ve just finished a week at Ronnie Scott’s. Happy days!

  46. Martin Sage says:

    Thanks all for the good stories and memories. I played at The 2i’s c1963/4 as bass player with Nick Terence and the Gunshots. We recorded some demos at IBC with Glyn Johns and one track we wrote was called Uncle Tom after Tom Littlewood. As well as playing there he gave us various gigs around London and I vaguely remember the offer of a tour of Germany backing a singer called Bridgette Bon, which we declined. I have some photos of the band down there. If any one is interested contact me at: martinsage1@hotmail.co.uk

  47. great web site brings back great memories of the 60,s

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