Join host Hazel Baker and guest John Donegan from Handel & Hendrix house as they talk about the London lives of composer George Frederic Handel and Jimi Hendrix.
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
Joining me in the studio today is John Donegan, the events and engagement officer at Handel and Hendrix in London. Hello John.
John Donegan originally from Derby or Derbados as it is better known. I now live in South-East London – I’m the Events & Engagement Officer at Handel & Hendrix in London and also the Outreach & Volunteers Officer at Pope’s Grotto.
John Donegan: Hello. How are you today, Hazel?
Hazel Baker: I’m looking forward to this one, you know? We’re unlikely neighbours and we’re going to be talking about two unlikely neighbours as well, aren’t we?
John Donegan: Yeah. But maybe they’re slightly more unlikely than others, but yeah.
Hazel Baker: So tell the audience, who are we going to be talking about today?
John Donegan: So, yeah, we’re going to be talking about George Frederick Handel, Baroque composer extraordinaire. And Jimmy Hendrix, rock icon who lived side by side in London, obviously a few hundred years apart. But they, they were neighbours.
Hazel Baker: So if we’re talking about Brook street in Mayfair, it’s a really nice address, isn’t it? It’s not somewhere where you would really imagine Jimmy Hendrix to be living.
John Donegan: No, no, I suppose it served a few purposes for him at the time in that it was it was a fairly commercial place, you know? There was a lot of shops. It wasn’t particularly residential. So he basically could play music as loud as he wanted at night and he had no neighbours to disrupt. So that sort of, that was one of the reasons why it was a good location for him. And perhaps it wasn’t quite as powerful, should we say, as it is now. It was a little more normal back then.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. And of course, we’re talking about the swinging sixties here. So Carnaby street was really hitting its mark and of course, Brook street isn’t too far away from Carnaby street at all.
John Donegan: Exactly. It was a great location, you know, to nip over to Ronnie Scott’s and play an impromptu jam session or invite people back round to his afterwards as well from places like Ronnie Scott. So yeah, it was a very good location. It was so central and so, so easy to get to all those different places that were so important in that, you know, that idea of the swinging sixties in London. So it works for him. Definitely. And it wasn’t, I think he was paying £30 a week for it at the time.
Hazel Baker: £30 a week that’s not bad, is it?
John Donegan: I think in today’s money it’s about £400. So it’s still quite pricey, but yeah,
Hazel Baker: I mean, if you think of the venues that around at the time, cause you had a, the Marquis, speakeasy, and obviously the Scotch of St. James. And is it right that he would actually go to these clubs and see if he could actually play on that night?
John Donegan: Oh, definitely. Yeah, he was, I mean, he was a performer. If there was somewhere for him to play, he was going there. And he was kind of deformed. If you look at the list of gigs, I mean, he was gigging constantly and there, the gigs that he was, you know, selling tickets for and that are documented. If you add on top of that, the fact that he was then going to the marquee club or scotch of St. James and then jamming for a couple of hours with people. And then he was going back to his flat and he was playing again. He was jamming there. So yeah, he was, he was just a relentless performer. That’s what he loved to do.
Hazel Baker: Yeah, it sounds really amazing time. I know from, I did a music degree and so all of those post concert parties, that’s where the real, real music happens.
John Donegan: Exactly. We have a great video of him playing I can see for a thousand miles on a 12 string, acoustic guitar in his, in the fly. It’s a really cool acoustic recording. And yeah, you get that sort of those, it would have been great to be there in that sort of atmosphere because it’s quite a small room and it’s just filled with people and he’s just playing with, you know, various other people like Richie Havens and people like that were there as well. So yeah, it would have been a really cool after party to go see.
Hazel Baker: And what brought him to London? What was it that he needed that he thought London could offer him?
John Donegan: I suppose, I mean, literally what brought him to London was Charles Chandler. So formerly of the animals, Charles brought him over because he had been highlighted to him by Keith Richards’ girlfriend at the time when she saw him playing in a club, she sort of highlighted how amazing he was. And yeah, Charles trying to port him over to London. This is where he made his name in the UK. He was actually then part of the Monterey pop festival, UK invasion act. That’s what he went over back to America as once he’d been here. So Paul McCartney and George Harrison, I think had seen him play. And then they heard, I think that they were heavily involved in the Monterey pop festival in 1967. And they brought him over there as part of the UK invasion acts, which always thinks quite funny. Yeah, quite an interesting story. But London, yeah, it was just one of the, one of the centres of that culture, that rock and roll culture at the time.
Hazel Baker: To think that he also changed his name to create this new identity as well.
John Donegan: Yeah, I think definitely that was part of it. He was creating this sort of, this character. Yeah, London, I think also, he talked about there being less hang-ups. I think he says. And I think that he’s talking about the fact that his race wasn’t oh, in no way can you say that there wasn’t racism in the country at the time. That’s not what I’m saying. Oh, but it was, it was different. The segregation that was illegal thing in America at the time he had been playing on the Chitlin Circuit, which was exclusively, you know, segregated audiences, even playing on the Chitlin Circuit, which was just for black musicians. So yeah, it was a very different atmosphere and he felt that, and he felt there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on the fact that he was black. He could be a musician more and yeah, it really provided with that platform.
Hazel Baker: I think also going to a place where it really is happening and immersing yourself completely, absolutely, giving yourself over, changing your name, as you said. But also going to as many clubs and experiencing the music that was happening right that moment, you have to go in for it, don’t you? It’s like a hundred percent you’ve got to throw yourself in there.
John Donegan: Yeah, definitely. And he did. So the first time the Beatles saw him they had just released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club and he came out and it literally just been released two days before and he came out and did a cover version of it. They were there in the audience. So, yeah. And that’s sort of how they became aware of him. So yeah, he was fully immersed, you know, he was friends with the Beatles and, you know, Charles Chandler and these people. So he stayed at Ringo’s styles flat for a while. And George Harrison used to come over and stay in the it, well, the room isn’t now part of the museum, unfortunately. That that floor was sort of really altered after he left. But yeah, a room that sort of would have been a floor up of where his bedroom was, George Harrison used to stay there quite often. So yeah, he was like you said, fully immersed in it.
Hazel Baker: Hendricks became aware that he had had a famous neighbour. didn’t he?
John Donegan: Yes he was. Oh, I suppose it also connects to the fact that he really immersed himself in the culture. The first evening he was here, he met Kathy actually. So Kathy was a DJ and sort of a name on the, on the London scene at the time. And yeah, he met her and then they sort of started a relationship from then in 1968, she found the flat, it Mayfair for him. So she found it. So he didn’t know about the connection beforehand, that isn’t why he took the flat. But once he, once he realised that and once yeah, he found himself there in the presence sort of another musical figure such as Handel, he was, yeah, he was really keen on the idea. He thought he was actually living in the flat because the blue plaque at the time was sort of misplaced. So he thought he was in the same building as Handel had been. Not the flat. So yeah, he thought his flat is part of Handel’s house. And but yeah, he went out to HMV around the corner and he bought Messiah and a thing, one of, one of the quotes he said when asked him about handle and he said, I don’t know much about the cat. I dig a bit of bark now and again. I don’t know if Handel has been referred to as a cat before, but yeah, that’s what he said. And now he really likes Messiah. And, you know, he did play it. So yeah,
Hazel Baker: Imagining get on these Bang and Olsen speakers at full volume. That sounds like great.
John Donegan: And I think when you listen to, especially as later, Electric Ladyland, there is some real operatic, you know, grunge to a lot of the songs. Yeah, that’s all almost composition, some of them. You can see the influences of all these different genres that he soaked up. Cause that’s what he did. He soaked up so much stuff in a very short amount of time and he put it into his work and you can definitely hear that. I think. When you listen to those things.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. Well that makes a good artist though. Isn’t it? It is when you, when you listen and you’re able to process that and then create something that’s your own from those influences.
John Donegan: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Taking things that, you know, might have been done few hundred years ago. Getting elements of that into something extremely contemporary and revolutionary. So yeah, it was really, really interesting his sort of what influenced him.
Hazel Baker: So Handel and Hendrix were neighbours, I’ll be at 204 years apart. But Hendrick saw Handel, didn’t he?
John Donegan: Yes. Yes. Oh yeah. He claims he was he was in the bathroom one evening and he saw him in the mirror. He saw Handel apparently whether he was under the influence of some alcohol, perhaps that evening, I’m not, yeah. Could have been something else. I’m not entirely sure. But yeah, I mean, it shows that he was on his mind as well, I suppose, at least like he was thinking about that connection, wasn’t it, which I think is interesting.
Hazel Baker: It might be a good time now to move our attention to Handel who lived at 23 Brooke street for 36 years.
John Donegan: Yes, he did. Handel was the first person to call it a home as well. So Handel moves in in 1723 as the first resident there. It’s one of the first residential buildings in the area of Mayfair. So Mayfair before the 1720s is quite a raw rule, you know, it’s fields and farms that you’re going in. So you’re, you’re at the edge of London. If you can imagine that now when you’ve got Oxford street around the corner, not really, but yeah, you’re at the edge of London, so that’s the first development and yeah, he moves in in 1723.
Hazel Baker: Can you imagine the guests that he would have had to his house, all the singers and instrumentalists as well?
John Donegan: Definitely. Yeah. It was a real working space, I think. Yeah. I think that’s one of the interesting things about the house. And there’s a bit of continuity though, with what we do as well, because we still have concerts on and we’re always, music has always been played in there. You know, we have the Handel house, talent, young people who were playing early, early instruments come and practice and put on programs. And yeah, it’s very much working space and it was for handled as well. No, he would, he was constantly writing. He was a, I mean, a workaholic in the extreme, in one of his manuscripts, the dates, he dates them and he’s working like every day. And then on Christmas day, you see that he’s scratches out the date. And he sort of gives himself a day off. So he was going to sit down to work on Christmas day, but he gives himself a day off, but yeah, he was such a workaholic, but It was, it was a space where he practice, people would come over and give performances in the music room that we now have, and he’d sell tickets and things downstairs as well for the programs and different shows. So, yeah, a really interesting space in, in that sense.
Hazel Baker: So it might be worth investigating the cultural landscape. So we touched on the swinging stick six days for Hendrix, but what was it like for Handel coming in in the 1700s, what he would have he experienced London.
John Donegan: Yeah, it’s a really, again, a really interesting time. A time of big changes. Definitely. And Handel comes over in 1710, initially. You’ve got the question of the succession looming over the country, and it’s pretty sure by this stage yeah that kind of Arians are gonna, are going to be coming in. George, who’s going to become George I is a lector of Hanover at this time. And Handel’s already worked with him. So he comes over to England on a bit of a sabbatical almost for working with George I, a bit of a cultural scout here is for, for that incoming Royal family. So yeah, he comes in 1710. And it’s not meant to be a permanent stay or at least we don’t think it was meant to be a sort of permanent thing when he first comes over.
But I think London at the time is such a place of opportunity. It’s the place where you go, if you want to make money in almost anything. And that’s especially true if you want to make money in the arts, then you come to London because you’re not having to rely on the patronage of, you know, one Monarch or a court or these sorts of things. You can go make your fortune yourself. There is this much more open marketplace for these sorts of things. So yeah, he comes over and starts to really do well and become part of British culture in a big way.
There’s a huge appetite for continental art at the time. So for music and art and opera and all these sorts of things, there’s a huge appetite you have this sort of the beginnings of the grand tour, these middle upper class gentleman going across the country. And you know, seeing all the things that are contained within that grand tour and the idea. So when they come back, they have this idea that, you know, that they’re really sort of cultured. And a lot of that’s tied up with an Italian opera and Handel’s obviously really able to capitalise on that because that’s his background. He’s able to really draw on his previous experiences working. He makes a lot of connections, a lot of money and becomes a real part of British culture at the time.
So then yeah, by the time George I comes over in 1714, Handel’s already pretty much established himself. And also it’s like, you’re saying that sort of cultural scout for the Hanoverians they’ve got, they have some people are aware of them more so probably because of Handel. That they’re more aware of the culture that they can bring and these sorts of things. So, yeah, it’s a really interesting environment that he finds himself in. And obviously there is some anti German sentiment at the time as well, which he has to deal with. So, you know, there’s some similarities there, I think, with, with Hendrix as well, the idea of being an outsider and different. And that being some discrimination because of that. So yeah, a really unique sort of time to come to London.
Hazel Baker: I like the idea that he liked it so much that he actually wanted to be a British citizen.
John Donegan: Yeah. Yeah. It was at 1727, he’s naturalised. He still never buys his house. So you couldn’t own property if you weren’t a British citizen, never actually purchased the property. But he’s buried in Westminster Abbey. He’s a such a, you know, Zaydok’s priest is still played every coronation. It’s still such a huge part of British culture and he becomes such an important figure within that.
Hazel Baker: Well, thank you so much, John really appreciate you sharing your knowledge of George and Jimmy today.
John Donegan: No problem. Glad to do it.
Hazel Baker: For our listeners, thanks very much for joining us today. I’ve hope you’ve learned a few more things. Until next time.