The story of The Onyx begins back in Barber’s Salesrooms, Turf St, Bodmin around 1961. Malcolm Barber was using his dad’s property as a rehearsal space for his then unnamed band. Poor Malcolm wasn’t destined for a life in front of the microphone, due in part to his inability to sing in tune. Another local boy, Tony Priest, however could sing. Tony came along to his friend’s rehearsals one day and after singing “Diana” by Brian Hyland, Malcolm was out of the band and Tony took over as lead singer. Malcolm took over the new role of band manager, but for a bunch of kids barely in their teens, without even a band name, there was very little for him to manage. He did however have a great space at his disposal for band rehearsals.
This rudimentary band became known as The Buccaneers and the line-up consisted of Tony Priest (Vocals), Fritz Philips (Drums), Cliff Webb (Lead Guitar), Rob Hancock (Bass) and Anthony Jewel (Rhythm Guitar). Around 1963 a 13 year old talent named Alan Hodge was performing “Foot Tapper” solo in front of the whole of Bodmin Comprehensive School and thinking about hooking up with some fellow musicians to form a band. The Gunslingers were a very popular band around Cornwall at the time and Alan asked if they would to take on an extra guitarist. ‘No Thanks’ was the response from the 21 yr old lead guitarist, clearly threatened by this young talent.
Meanwhile The Buccaneers had started to become more accomplished. Alan came along to a band rehearsal and was taken on board as rhythm guitarist, quickly progressing on to Lead. This new band became the Jaguars.
The Jaguars soon began performing locally, initially playing for free during intervals of more well known local bands, such as The Druids from Bodmin. In 1964 the band entered the annual ‘Rock and Rhythm’ contest run by the Truro Round Table at the Truro City Hall (now Hall for Cornwall). This event took place between 1961-70, changing its name to ‘Top Group’ in 1968, and was similar in format to the American ‘Battle of the Bands’. At early events bands were expected to perform one instrumental and one vocal. The week prior to the event The Shadows released “Theme For Young Lovers” and The Beatles “Can’t Buy Me Love”, teenage guitar protégée Alan Hodge quickly worked the songs out and The Jaguars won the 1964 contest.
Not long after winning the competition Tony left The Jaguars and joined the short-lived outfit 3 And A Bit, alongside future Onyx bass player Mike Black-Borow. The band didn’t perform any gigs, but did compete in the 1965 Rock and Rhythm contest. Alan had also just left The Jaguars and was presently band less.
Around this time Rick & The Hayseeds, who featured Steve Cotton (Lead Guitar), Don Carthew (Rhythm Guitar) Graham Burt (bass) and a yodelling singer called Rick Pearn, were gigging throughout Cornwall. Sometime in Jan 1965 Mike Black-Borow, bass player in The Gunslingers was approached by Vic Cotton (Steve’s dad, who was also acting as the bands manager) to join Rick & The Hayseeds on bass as their current bass player was losing interest in performing with a band.
The band would make a recording, laying down a few tracks in the surroundings of Wadebridge’s Regal cinema, with a mike positioned in the projection booth. A four track acetate was cut at Wadebridge Sound Studios. After a few more personnel changes the yodelling Rick was out and replaced by Alan’s old band mate Tony Priest, who hadn’t been up to much since the demise of 3 And A Bit. Tony joined the band on stage at Newquay’s Blue Lagoon for a rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” and yodelling was out, rock & roll in. Rick was slowly phased out of the band and the nucleus of what would become The Onyx was formed.
The line-up of the new band was Tony Priest (vocals), Steve Cotton (lead guitar), Mike Black-Borow (bass) and Pete England (rhythm guitar). Several drummers passed through the ranks before the band settled on Chris Cotterell, ex-Manny Cockle’s Big Beat Four. Chris was a Londoner who had also spent some time drumming for Nero & the Gladiators, who had scored a couple of minor hits in the early 60s.
Of course without Rick the band needed a change of name. Mike Black-Borow suggested The Onyx, as he had a signet ring with his initials in gold on onyx. Pete England had been reading a catalogue which had ‘rings from the onyx set’ and so the band were named The Onyx Set.
The early incarnation of the band were soon developing into a popular live band, playing covers of hits of the day, particularly the popular R’n’B dance hits of the day (Midnight Hour, Working in a Coalmine, Barefootin’, Dancing In The Streets, etc.). Pete’s input into the band would be short-lived and he soon left, being replaced by Dick Bland who took over on lead guitar, with Steve Cotton moving onto rhythm.
Steve’s dad Vic drove a lorry for a living and often called at a chicken farm just outside of Wadebridge (to pick up chickens for slaughter). He heard that every now and then the large sheds remained empty for a few days when the chickens were removed and the place was cleaned. The farm owners son, Carl Bircher, had a tape recorder, an amp, two speakers and two mikes and offered to record the band in the empty chicken shed (Carl had previously been behind the Rick & The Hayseeds recordings). Despite its rather gruesome function, with a layer of wood chippings to dampen the sound the space actually had good acoustics.
Vic was very keen for the band to succeed and had secured some demos for the band to record. Presumably the demos came from an agent, with possible links to a record company, however the source and intended use of the recordings has been lost in time. Out of the selection the band chose to record an original song entitled, “I don’t need that kind o’ lovin”
Carl Bircher set about recording the band as they ran through a set of covers, ranging from RnB to The Shadows, as well as the demo track. A selection of tracks were pressed up on acetates by Wadebridge Sound Studio and distributed amongst band members. Presumably Vic also sent a copy to wherever the demo had originated, although it appears that nothing came of this.
Through talent and hard work the band started to make a name for themselves as a popular local live band, playing all the popular venues around Cornwall, such as the Blue Lagoon (Newquay), Tall Trees (Newquay), Flamingo (Redruth), Barn Club (Penzance), PJ’s (Truro) as well as the many much smaller village halls which would regularly hold weekend dances. They were soon popular enough to hit the road. A lot of early bookings were arranged by Pete Brown of B.C.D Entertainments, who lined the band up with gigs through Devon and Cornwall.
The Onyx Set travelled in their own converted 32 seater Bristol Greyhound Bus, christened Lady Sandra. Over time the bus became kitted out with bunk beds and even a kitchen. The band grew both as a band and individuals during the early days on the road, living, eating and sleeping on Lady Sandra. Vic Cotton wouldn’t stand for any scruffy musicians on the bus, insisting that the band washed regularly, even if that did mean a blast of cold water in a lay-by, “I ain’t ‘aving no dirty buggers in my bus” was a regularly cry!
The band had lined up some gigs through a booking agency in Bristol called the Vincent-Rudman-Amigo, with the hope of scoring gigs over the wider South West peninsula. Shows were promised in the Bristol area. On arrival they found there had a mix up and were told that they were expected a week earlier and no gigs were available. This resulted in the band spending several nights camped out in the bus under the Clifton suspension bridge on the hunt for paid work. Eventually the agency got their act together and bookings started coming in throughout the UK.
While the band had started to tour throughout the UK, they were still an increasingly popular band in their home county, regularly drawing in crowds from all over Cornwall when they were at home. The big Saturday draw was the Blue Lagoon in Newquay, which was considered the place to play in Cornwall. The Blue Lagoon featured many of the big touring bands of the day, such as The Moody Blues, Status Quo, The Troggs and The Checkmates, and the band would often fill the support slot. The band would also back up many touring hit makers of the day, including Crispian St Peters and Neil Christian.
After a particularly long stretch touring up and down the UK, around September 1966 Mike Black-Borow made the decision that life on the road wasn’t for him. He made the decision to leave the band and settled into married life in Cornwall, playing his final gig at Newquay’s Tall Trees club. Vic Cotton approached Alan Hodge’s dad asking whether Alan would like to join the band. Alan by now had just left school and accepted. With current lead guitarist Dick Bland moving onto bass “The Onyx” was almost complete.
It was at this time that the band made the transition from a bunch of kids playing in a band, to a fully fledged professional outfit. This move was partly influenced by the band Wishful Thinking. After supporting the band at Newquay’s Blue Lagoon, The Onyx introduced Step By Step into their line-up, which Wishful Thinking had recently released as a single. The band felt a strong affinity to the band and they would play a large part in the band gaining the confidence to turn pro.
The introduction of Alan also brought along with it a move into a more harmony driven direction, with the introduction of Beach Boys and Four Seasons covers. It also caused yet another shift in the ever changing line-up, with Dick Bland moving onto bass. Without the need for a rhythm guitarist, Steve Cotton was left without a role in the band. Steve could play a bit of piano and so, after purchasing his first Farfisa (he would later move onto a Vox) the band introduced keyboards to the line-up. This line-up only lasted a short period of time, as Chris Cotterell abruptly left the band after an argument.
Initially the band wanted Roger Taylor (of Queen fame) to replace Chris, but he was busy with The Reaction. Chris was replaced by Roger Dell, from Hayle band Modesty Blues. Roger was working at Sunny Skies Holiday Camp (now Talk of the West) in St Agnes, earning some extra cash. One drunken evening he got up on stage to play a drum solo, to the delight of the owner of the camps son with whom he formed his first band. The recently formed band entered a talent contest at Redruth’s Flamingo Club, with the top prize being a recording contact in Plymouth. The band won, but there was uproar as another band was ‘supposed’ to win, and the recording session never did materialise. Roger sat in after a gig at the Penzance’s Barn Club and the band were suitably impressed that not only was he a talented drummer but a rendition of ‘Working in Coalmine’ also showed off his excellent vocals. Vic offered Roger the Onyx gig for 10 shillings a day.
With the inclusion of Roger the classic Onyx line-up was complete. The band was initially based out of Wadebridge with all members except from Tony being from the area. The completed line-up brought in Alan from Bodmin, Roger from Camborne and Dick from Rock. Tony could be found in either Bodmin or Newquay.
In the early days the band adopted ‘stage names’, which would continue throughout much of their career. These were in fact their middle names, so they became Tony Edwards, Steve Charles, Alan Charles, Richard Leigh. Roger remained Roger Dell, as he had no middle name. Steve and Alan would often have great amusement in passing themselves off as brothers.