My song today is ‘A Mess of Blues’. This song was originally recorded by Elvis Presley for ‘RCA Records’ in 1960. It was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Although released as the B-side to ‘It’s Now or Never’, ‘A Mess of Blues’ reached Number 32 in the U.S. and Number 2 in the UK independently.
When this record came out, I was a 17-year-old and my best buddy was Tony Walsh. We were born in two Irish villages no more than 8 miles apart from each other. During my teens, Tony came to West Yorkshire to live with a relative on the estate where I lived, and our friendship naturally grew closer.
Tony was a good-looking young man, but not quite as handsome as I was. Having been a good boxer earlier, his face held a rugged handsomeness whereas mine was more Adonis-like with fewer blemishes and it had never experienced so much as a scratch or broken skin. Every other bone in my body had been broken, but my face remained unscarred. Tony and I, despite being the best of mates were fiercely competitive in everything we did. We each thought ourselves to be the better looking than the other, the better dancer, the one who could drink the most, and the better fighter. I would take judo lessons twice weekly and Tony would do a bit of boxing. We also took turns teaching each other our combative specialties. We naturally, argued the merits of whether a boxer’s punch to the face or solar plexus would be more likely to floor an opponent more effectively than to throw one’s opponent over one’s shoulders during a fight (known in Judo as the ippon seoi nage).
Each week we went dancing twice. While we would always go out for a good night, more often than not, a fight would break out in the dance hall between two young men, and before anyone could sneeze twice, the whole dance hall would become a ‘free for all’ gladiatorial arena with one gang fighting another. We had a certain code of fighting behaviour at the time which deemed what was ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’. Anyone who kicked an opponent would be considered ‘a dirty fighter’ and their street reputation would be tarnished, and all use of knives and other weapons were severely a ‘no go area’ and would receive mass disapproval. Winning a fight was the objective, but winning would prove insufficient unless one ‘fought fairly’. Indeed, many a young man who lost a fight to an older and much superior and weightier opponent could emerge from their nightly contest with more respect than if he’d been the winner of a more equal bout.
And yet, there were some noticeable inconsistencies and anomalies within this moral code of combat that existed between the fighting gangs who attended the weekly dances. For instance, in a one-to-one fight, no weapon was considered socially acceptable, and to use one would invite instant mass disapproval and bring shame upon the offender of the fighting code, as would hitting a female. In mass brawls, however, while kicking opponents and using knives or knuckle dusters were considered ‘out of bounds’, it was considered okay during the course of the mass melee to crash a chair over an opponent’s head, rendering him unconscious, or to break one over his back!
The song I sing today was being played at Cleckheaton Town Hall one Saturday night when a fight broke out on the dance floor after one lad looked cross-eyed at another young man after he’d started talking to his girlfriend. Tony and I were upstairs at the time having a drink and chatting with a couple of young women. Before two or three minutes had passed between the fight starting downstairs on the dance floor, it had spread up the stairs also, and Tony and I found ourselves facing four young men from the Halifax crew on the balcony coming towards us and determined to do us some damage. Being outnumbered two to one, we sought to equal the score by hitting the two closest to us before they had the chance to hit either of us. For once, Tony took my advice. He forgot his boxing ability for a moment, and after picking up a nearby chair, he crashed it down on one of the other crew, while I was in a tussle with another Halifax chappie.
Seconds later, I and the Halifax chap went over the balcony and we fell the 15 feet distance towards the dance floor. I don’t know if we landed on anyone else, but my fall was cushioned when I landed on my opponent. I quickly got to my feet, ignoring the young Halifax man who I had fallen over the balcony with and ran back upstairs to check on Tony. Although nursing a bruised face, Tony had successfully dealt with his second opponent who was now laid out on the floor.
The irony of this Saturday night dance hall brawl was that the girl who the initial fight had broken out over was not the steady girlfriend of either of the initial two combatants. She was merely a pawn in the traditional Saturday night sport of “Don’t you dare look at one of the girls from our patch, or else!”
This is what I remember vividly about this particular Saturday night at Cleckheaton Town Hall Dance which Tony Walsh and I attended sixty years ago; plus the song of Elvis’ that was being danced to at the time, ‘A Mess of Blues’. We joked afterward that while ‘A Mess of Blues’ was being played downstairs, Tony and I were creating our own mess fighting upstairs on the balcony!
God bless you, Tony, mate. They do say there is lots of music and dancing but no fighting up in heaven, so hopefully, you are not too bored up there Tony?
Love and peace Bill xxx