Leigh’s Famous Potatoes celebrate four decades

Leigh-on-Sea barn dance band The Famous Potatoes are celebrating forty years of music-making and entertainment featuring largely their original line-up of musicians.

The local band, who describe their distinctive sound as Soil Music, have played approaching 2000 gigs and marked their anniversary with a big party for family, friends and musical acquaintances in Southend this week.

The band is renowned for its eclectic range of instruments mixing accordions, fiddle and recorder with guitars and drums and featuring a zobstick and washboard straight out of the skiffle era. They have released four albums and one single, recorded on Waterfront Records.

They are one of the most prolific performers in their field over a long period and still gig regularly.

Speaking at the party to mark the occasion, renowned local music producer Peter Eden said: “The ‘Potatoes’ music makes you smile – they have created happiness and brought joy”.

It all started in the summer of 1979 when a band was needed one night for the Ceilidh Club at Leigh’s Grand Hotel.

“A few of us got together, learned some tunes and were able to provide good music for the dancers. We’ve been appearing at barn dances ever since,” said caller and trombone player, Keith Baxter.

Half of the eight-piece combo attended Westcliff High School together back in the 1970s and invited in youth group friends to form a folk act originally called The Folk Pistols. After a couple of name changes, they settled on The Famous Potatoes, after some of the members visited Idaho, where that is the state motto.

“We draw our inspiration from a wide range of musical styles such as American old-timey, cajun, western swing, rock’n’roll and the folk music of the British Isles,” said Paul Collier, the band’s drummer.

“There’s a long history of music to-and-froing across the Atlantic and subtly mutating on its journey, and I think we see ourselves as part of that grand tradition.”

The Famous Potatoes have seen only two changes in line-up with Charlie Skelton joining in 1990 after fiddle player, Nick Pynn, left to join Steve Harley’s band, while Tony Littman stepped in on guitar when original band member Richard Reynolds left in 1988.

Although in recent years the group has mainly performed as a ‘barn dance band with caller’, the “Spuds” can call upon an extensive repertoire of songs and tunes to perform in a concert setting.

In the early days they performed on the London pub Countrybilly scene, which featured acts like The Pogues, Skiff Skats and Boothill Foot Tappers. Large-scale festivals followed, both in the UK and abroad, as well as radio and TV appearances as diverse as The Generation Game and Songs of Praise.

Legendary radio DJ Andy Kershaw once famously described them as his “second favourite live band of all time” (his favourite being Half Man Half Biscuit).

The Famous Potatoes have become a musical institution in Leigh, appearing most years at the Folk Festival, Hoy at Anchor Folk Club and the annual Folk Carol Service at St. Clements Church. Many locals will have encountered them playing for barn dances in and around the borough of Southend and the band reckon they have played in just about every hall around the town.

These days they are often booked for weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. “We are often asked back and we have even entertained at silver weddings for couples whose weddings we played for!” said Paul McDowell, who plays accordion and piano.

“As well as playing music together we’ve supported each other through all of life’s key moments from university to work, marriage, children, relationships and bereavements,” commented Melanie Derbyshire, who plays recorder in the group.

“We’ve met so many interesting people at gigs over the years, many of whom have become good friends,” added bass player, Nigel Blackaby.

“But, most of all, it has been our supportive families who have encouraged us and given us the opportunity to enjoy playing music for 40 years.”

Reflecting on the band’s longevity, singer and melodeon player Richard Baxter said, “We have always enjoyed playing the music we actually like but have never taken ourselves too seriously or become over-ambitious.

“I think that comes across in our performances, so people keep booking us to play. There’s no reason to stop when it’s still fun.”

The band in the late 1970s

Mick Ferris

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